King College Prep students, parents and faculty grab food at a July 2019 block party. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

SOUTH SHORE — Nearly all students at two area high schools attended their first day of school, according to Chicago Public Schools data, and school leaders are striving to maintain those high attendance rates by keeping students engaged throughout the fall.

At King College Preparatory High School in Kenwood, 99.8 percent of students attended their first day of virtual classes, according to district figures. About 466 students attend King. At South Shore International College Preparatory High School, 98.3 percent of students were present on the first day. South Shore enrolls 578 students.

King students have so far maintained high attendance rates, finishing the first week with a 96.3 percent attendance rate, according to principal Brian Kelly.

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Faculty members weren’t surprised at the success, given high attendance in past years and good turnout at a Sept. 4 “welcome day” where students received personal protective equipment, t-shirts and technology, Kelly said.

To continue their strong start, faculty must help students balance their education with their challenges “outside of being a student,” he said. That could mean signing work release forms for kids who need jobs to help provide for their families, or checking in on absent students to find out what’s keeping them from class.

The effort to check up on students has been aided by a summer push to collect updated contact information for all students, Kelly said.

“If a student misses first period, we’re on the phone before the end of first period asking what’s going on,” Kelly said.

School officials are still “building a plane and flying it at the same time,” Kelly said, but the summer’s work has made for an easier transition than when schools first went online in March.

“We spent a lot of energy this summer trying to ensure we got off to a great start, and the data shows that we are,” Kelly said. “The next level is to ensure that everyone is engaged.”

South Shore International College Prep’s decline from the first day was a bit sharper, but attendance remained high, closing out the first week at 90 percent, according to principal Michelle Flatt.

The South Shore school’s first day was intended to ease students back, with only one virtual classroom per grade level for the whole day. A virtual scavenger hunt, a dance party for students who completed the hunt and information on school clubs and extracurriculars kept the mood light.

Now, students must adjust to navigating different classroom links and full days of schoolwork, Flatt said.

“It’s a learning curve for the students,” she said. “We’re proud of how they’ve reached out to us: Emailing teachers, emailing me, emailing [assistant principal Jesús Laurel] to advocate for themselves.”

The goal is for students to sustain attendance rates of 95 percent, Flatt said. Weekly grade-level attendance competitions — the sophomores won last week — are one of the ways faculty are working to ensure students show up to class through the fall.

Flatt and Laurel said attendance is important, but success will be determined by students’ engagement once they’ve arrived.

To encourage engagement, the district has given permission to organize virtual field trips, and the school’s leadership team is pursuing opportunities for socially distanced events outside while the weather is still warm.

Faculty must think of creative ways to use their virtual classrooms so “it’s not just sitting in front of a screen all day,” Flatt said. “We want to remind students they are still in school even if they’re in front of a computer at home.”

Community involvement will be crucial to schools’ success through this challenging year, Flatt said. Teachers are funding a lot of their classroom resources, so neighbors can reach out to them to donate gift cards and supplies to help them through the year.

District-wide, 84.2 percent of students attended their first day of online classes. That’s about 10 percentage points lower than first-day figures from the prior four school years.

While King and South Shore International excelled, others in the Hyde Park, Woodlawn and South Shore area varied widely in their first-day turnout.

Area schools exceeding the district average included:

  • Phillip Murray School: 91.9 percent.
  • Andrew Carnegie School: 91.5 percent.
  • Bouchet Elementary Math and Science Academy: 91.1 percent.
  • Kenwood Academy High School: 89.4 percent.
  • Woodlawn Community Elementary: 86.8 percent.

Hyde Park Academy High School, Powell Elementary and Fiske Elementary were among the schools with first-day attendance rates below 75 percent.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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