Birmingham nonprofit Kings Kids Outreach is fighting to get students to show up for class in Birmingham City Schools (BCS).
According to the most recent report card from the Alabama State Department of Education (ASDE), almost a quarter of BCS students are chronically absent, and some schools have chronic absenteeism rates above 50%.
Per the U.S. Department of Education, a student is chronically absent when he or she misses at least 15 days of school in a given year.
The absentee issue drew the ire of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin in October when he told the Birmingham City Council that unexcused absences in Birmingham City Schools have been excessive. He said that 50% of all third-graders in Birmingham City Schools are considered truant, which means a student has seven or more unexcused absences.
Woodfin said he contacted Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr's office to hold parents accountable for their truant children. According to Alabama law, most children between the ages of six and 17 are required to attend school. Legally, violators of this law can receive a misdemeanor charge with a fine of up to $100 and 90 days of hard labor.
However, Carr later told 1819 News that he had not heard from Woodfin and talked to us about what his office was doing to combat the issue.
Woodfin again brought up the absentee problem on Tuesday and promised to work with the CEO of the Housing Authority of Birmingham to "come up with a carrot" to lead parents to take their kids to school.
But the city government isn't the only group looking for solutions to this problem.
Eric Jones founded Kings Kids Outreach in 2012 to address a plethora of issues facing young men in Birmingham. The organization seeks to reduce juvenile arrests, recidivism and drug and gang activity and boost academic performance and, of course, school attendance.
To help young men face these issues, Kings Kids Outreach provides mentoring to male students in the city.
"When I was growing up - I'm from the Mason City, Cooper Green area that's on the Southwest of Birmingham - we didn't people, doctors, lawyers or professional people come to the school and come talk to me about the importance of school," Jones said. "What I wanted to do was give the kids something that I didn't have, an opportunity to be exposed."
Before COVID-19, Jones' nonprofit was mentoring nearly 300 young males. Now, Kings Kids Outreach is attempting to build back up. They are working with several elementary and middle schools in the BCS system.
Jones said King Kids Outreach helped bring the absentee rate down from 26% to 6% at one middle school.
To combat absenteeism, Jones said the key is to "make school fun again."
"That goes to the teachers, to the parents working together, to the community leaders working together," he added. "... On the other end, the kids have to be more motivated to come. At this point, they're not motivated. But what we saw was motivation. We saw the kids wanting to come to school. They wanted to be there. Why? Because we made it fun."
One thing Kings Kids Outreach does to tackle the attendance problem is provide incentives for kids who show up to school and show improvement. For instance, they might provide a pancake breakfast for the grade level with the best attendance.
Jones also said it is important to expose the kids to their potential.
"When you expose them to something better, more than what their community is, then their eyes can open up and say, 'maybe I do need to come to school more," he explained. "... We have to expose our kids to what we want them to be."
Jones said that when kids want to come to school, that helps get their parents to take them. That, however, does not minimize the role the parents play, especially for kids who are too young to drive themselves to school.
"The parents play a big role," he said. "I think that part of it is that we have to hold the parents accountable. It's kind of like this. If you tell a child if you do this or [that], I'm going suspend you, or you're going to be punished, but you never do it, what's going to stop them from not doing it again? So if you keep on telling the parents that if we don't see your kids in school, that you're going to do this and that … but each year, they don't do what they're supposed to be doing, and nothing happens, what's going to make them change. So you definitely have to hold the parents accountable."
"But then you have to find out again what's going on with the home life," he added. "You're dealing with a culture where if a parent has to work but can't find a babysitter for the little kids who's not in school to go, who's going to have to stay home from school to take care of the brothers and sisters? So I think that goes, again, for us all working together, to parter up to see what is the issue."
In partnership with the YMCA Youth Center, Kings Kids Outreach also provides college and career readiness for Birmingham teens. Jones said he and his colleagues sometimes take boys on college tours, which changes their perspective on higher education. In addition, they bring in professionals to speak to the kids.
You can learn more about Kings Kids Outreach on their website.
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