In Philly, a push to get more kids to show up for school

Zydeek Perez, 10, attends Hartranft Elementary in N. Philadelphia. Zydeco has not missed a day of school since kindergarten.

Zaira Perez is on a mission to raise a strong, successful boy safely in her North Philadelphia neighborhood, an outcome she knows is not guaranteed.

“I try to push my son to greatness,” said Perez, a single mother with four children. “I don’t want to lose him to crime.”

The best way to do that, she figures? Make sure he goes to school — at Hartranft Elementary on West Cumberland Street — every day. On Tuesday, her son, Zydeek, 10, gripped a gold star trophy given to him by Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and posed for photographs with Mayor Kenney, smiling broadly. The boy has had perfect attendance since kindergarten.

Camera icon KRISTEN A. GRAHAM / Staff
Mayor Kenney with fifth grader Zydeek Perez, 10, who has had perfect attendance since kindergarten, and his mother, Zaira Perez, and sisters at Hartranft Elementary.

Zydeek, a fifth grader, had been declared Philadelphia’s first Attendance Hero in a campaign to boost school attendance citywide. To that end, the city and School District are blasting the region with messages, from radio ads to robocalls from Kenney and Eagles star Brandon Graham.

“When children attend school, we know that they learn to read,” Hite said at a news conference at Hartranft. “When children attend school, they graduate. When children attend school, they tend to be more successful later in life.”

Attendance is a perennial problem in urban schools nationwide. Hite has made getting more children to school regularly a priority. Students who miss more than two days of school in September are more likely to have chronic attendance problems, research shows; chronic absence in middle grades is a key marker of students who eventually drop out of high school.

Hartranft was chosen for the launch of the #AttendanceHero campaign for its success in boosting attendance rates. The school’s average daily attendance jumped from 89 percent two years ago to 93 percent last year; the percentage who miss no more than 5 percent of school also increased, from 29 percent to 43 percent, said Jason Lytle, the school’s principal.

To achieve the change, said Pamela Gray-Young, the school counselor, school officials didn’t just tell parents to bring their children to school regularly. They asked them: What’s stopping our kids from showing up regularly?  And then they went about seeing how they could help — with housing issues, transportation issues. Hartranft offers parenting workshops and holds regular community meetings.

“If we can help them, we will,” said Gray-Young. “It’s not that they don’t want their children to be here — they just need supports.”

Kenney said Hite and the district have the city’s full support with the attendance push.

“When you’re a student, your main responsibility is to come to school,” the mayor told Hartranft students at a rally where the 76ers Dunk Squad pumped up the crowd with music and dancing. “Make sure you get to school every single day.”

(City Councilman Derek Green, on hand for the Tuesday event, has a son who attends a district school, and said he’d already received a robocall from Kenney.)

City students would do well to follow Zydeek’s lead, Hite and Kenney said.

Maintaining perfect attendance isn’t always easy, the boy said.

“Even if I was sick, I still came to school,” said Zydeek. “I had a stomachache once, and my mom said I could stay home, but I wanted to come to school.”