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What I Do

What I do: Kenneth McLaughlin, attendance teacher

New York Teacher
Kenneth McLaughlin
Jonathan Fickies

Kenneth McLaughlin, an attendance teacher for seven high schools in Manhattan, works with students and their families to make sure students have the support they need to come to class. 

What does an attendance teacher do?

Every school has an attendance teacher assigned to it. I support seven high schools in District 2 in Manhattan. I’m part of each school’s attendance team and meet with members weekly to review the school’s attendance data and discuss the next steps for supporting students’ daily attendance and their reengagement to school if they’re not attending regularly. My role is to offer best practices to schools when we identify a missing student. If a student hasn’t been in school in one to three days, I’m asking, “Have we been in contact with the family? Are we sure everything’s OK?” Then we identify students who have 10 consecutive days absent or 20 cumulative days. Based on whether the school does or doesn’t know the reason, that student becomes part of my caseload. Then I work with those students and their families to identify why the student isn’t coming to school and how we can reengage and support the student. I’m one part truancy officer, two parts social worker. 

What steps do you take when a school identifies a student who is not coming to classes?

When attempts to locate the family or the student fall short within a school, I step in. First, I go to the school to find the student’s blue card. Blue cards are a gold mine of information. My favorite phone number on the blue card is grandma’s, because grandma’s phone number never changes. Many times when I reach a family by phone, they’re unaware the student hasn’t been in school. But sometimes the phone number isn’t working. Then I make a home visit.

How do you approach students who are not attending school?

When I reach a family member, I prefer to meet with students and families at the school so we have direct access to the people who can support the student with next steps, like the school counselor and administration. I’m also there to offer families additional support if they need it, such as the Family Assessment Program — which is part of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, but families can self-select to be involved. It’s a great resource for parents or guardians who might have a defiant teenager. Also, if it’s warranted — for example, if I feel a family is giving a student too much responsibility at home and there’s educational neglect going on — I will speak to the school administrators about getting ACS involved, but only as a last resort.

What do you want others to understand about absenteeism?​

When I started this job, I thought kids were absent because they were just cutting school. But the only way to find out why a student is absent is to peel away the onion layers. There are students who are experiencing mental health issues, bullying, anxieties, phobias or other problems that prevent them from attending school. I’ve had students whose parents have been deported and they’re left on their own. There are students who work to help their families. I visit a lot of families in shelters​ or in doubled-up housing, and that has an impact on students’ education. It’s important for teachers to use positivity. Instead of, “You’re failing because you’re not here,” say, “Would you please come to class? We miss you.”

What’s changed about your job in the remote teaching era?

I’m working to help students and their families understand the expectations for participation in remote learning and check-ins in this new digital era. I am helping my schools’ efforts to identify students who have yet to participate and engage in remote learning. I can help resolve technological obstacles and offer advice on creating a personal learning environment at home. Each day is a learning experience for me, too.

— As told to reporter Rachel Nobel

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