Addressing a chronic problem that drains both critical learning time and valuable state funding from schools, community leaders in Memphis launched a campaign Wednesday targeting student absenteeism.

The campaign, titled “Represent Everyday,” coincides with national Attendance Awareness Month and is being conducted by Shelby County Schools in partnership with local officials, the nonprofit Seeding Success organization, and the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.

“Nothing good comes from absenteeism,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Lutrell said at a joint news conference at Cherokee Elementary School. “If we don’t start focusing on the essentials and basics at this age, then we’ve missed the opportunity and that will have ramifications throughout life.”

Last year, 22,000 K-12 students missed at least 10 percent of their classes, or roughly 18 days of school, according to Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. In Shelby County Schools, a student is considered truant if he or she misses five or more days of class.

“If everyone in this room leaves here today and spreads the word that for the month of September, everyone is going to do everything they can to make sure our children go to school every day ready to learn, there will be no need for the (district attorney’s) office to prosecute any truancy cases,” Weirich said. “The absolute last thing our office wants to do is prosecute parents because their kids aren’t going to school.”

The campaign encourages the Memphis community to work together to get kids in their classrooms, particularly in early grades when children are gaining the skills that build their foundation for learning.

Research shows that students who arrive at school academically ready to learn — but then miss 10 percent of their kindergarten and first-grade years — score an average of 60 points below similar students with good attendance on third-grade reading tests.

Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said many students in Memphis miss class because of barriers stemming from “suffocating poverty.” Some miss because they lack reliable transportation or have health issues like asthma but lack the proper health care, he said.

Hopson said the campaign is designed to provide incentives, not punishment. He encouraged schools to host pizza parties for good attendance or similar periodic rewards.

Diane Terrell, executive director of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, announced the NBA team will provide prizes for good attendance throughout the year. At the end of the first nine weeks of classes, students with 95 percent attendance or better are eligible for a drawing for tickets to a basketball game. The school with the highest attendance rate will receive a similar reward — dinner and tickets to a game. NBA players also will periodically visit schools with high levels of attendance.

Seven Cherokee Elementary School students are honored for perfect attendance during the 2014-15 school year.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Seven Cherokee Elementary School students are honored for perfect attendance during the 2014-15 school year.

Cherokee Elementary School, which has an average daily attendance rate of more than 95 percent, served as the backdrop for Wednesday’s launch and honored seven students for perfect attendance last year.

Principal Rodney Rowan said good attendance has been vital to strong academic gains in 2014-15 at his school, where he posts the school’s attendance number in the hallways every day and students are rewarded with a “jeans day” if they achieve perfect attendance for 20 days. Students also are invited to parties every two weeks for perfect attendance and good conduct. In addition, Cherokee keeps a clothes closet stocked with gently worn items, including winter coats, so that inadequate clothing can never be a reason why a student misses class.

Before classes began on Aug. 10, Shelby County Schools also struggled to get its students registered, despite an unprecedented push that included a new online registration system, a longer registration period, and even neighborhood canvassing around some schools. By the end of the first week of school, an estimated 9,000 students still were not registered — a chronic issue that has perplexed education leaders for decades.

As of Wednesday, about 102,000 students were registered with the district, and officials were trying to track down about 1,900 students they anticipated would return to Shelby County Schools, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent.