It doesn’t take a raft of research, though it exists, to figure out school attendance is essential to academic success. Frequent absences add up to poor fundamental reading and math skills in early years and heightened risk for dropping out in later grades.
The burden to stop chronic truancy — defined by the state as missing 18 or more days during a school year or two days per month — is largely placed on principals. But like a bad P.A. system, their message often gets muffled.
That’s why Washington’s office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the state Department of Social Health Services recently teamed up with Mentoring Works Washington, a nonprofit that supports youth mentoring across the state, to offer a unified message: There’s power of consistent school attendance.
Enter Jermaine Kearse, the Jermaine Kearse, 2008 graduate of Lakes High School in Lakewood and big-play wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. He’s the state’s first pro athlete to volunteer for this endeavor. He’s recorded two messages: one to be sent to kids, the other to parents.
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The Tumwater School District is the first to sign up for these messages. (We were holding out for Kearse’s hometown Clover Park School District.) Kids should not expect a warm and fuzzy “wake-up, sunshine” early-morning call; Kearse barks at them to “Get up and go to school!” To parents he says: “Coach ’em up. Be in the game every day.”
He tells kids what every educator worth their salt says: “The future’s all yours: all you have to do is show up.”
And that’s the problem: Kids haven’t been showing up. Washington has the second-highest truancy rate in the nation.
It’s important to note that much of what keeps children at home is out of their control: Difficulties with housing or food, bullying, and problems with mental and emotional health often lead kids to school avoidance.
Under a new state law, every school district in Washington was required to set up a community truancy board by last fall. The boards helps connect students to transportation, counseling, tutoring and other services.
One-on-one mentors help, too. And while celebrity robocalls will never take the place of a mentorship, they’re a clever idea and a growing trend: David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox recorded a similar message for Beantown’s public schools. Students in New York can now get a motivational call from Magic Johnson.
We foresee a day when President Barack Obama calls kids to say he used to get up at 4 a.m to study and they can, too. Students skipping gym class? Cue Pete Carroll to chew gum in their ears while reading from his “Keep-chopping-wood” handbook.
Often it’s the efforts of mentors and volunteer citizens that make a difference in children’s lives. All the better when those volunteers are local sons and daughters who’ve done well for themselves and choose to give back to their community.
Few people can inspire like big-time athletes such as Kearse and Isaiah Thomas, who both played ball at the University of Washington. Thomas hasn’t been deputized as a truancy officer yet, but he recently donated $80,000 to the very Boys and Girls Club on the Hilltop that launched his meteoric rise from Curtis High School to the Boston Celtics.
Their time, commitment and attention have the power to get kids off the treadmill of truancy and other self-defeating behavior. So we say: Keep those calls coming.