No Show Patrol

By RICHIE GERGEL

Stephenette Wright

Stephenette Wight looks over attendance records at East Brooklyn Congregations High School. Chronic truancy is among the reasons the school has been targeted for closure. Richie Gergel/COVERING EDUCATION

Two hours before the first bell, Stephenette Wright was already at her desk, glancing over the names of students with the worst attendance records at her East New York High School.

The list of students with at least 50 absences was more than 50 kids long, nearly one-fifth of the student body.

The assistant family officer at East Brooklyn Congregations High School for Public Safety and the Law had little time to spare. She needed to knock on as many doors as she could that morning, to meet face to face with parents of the school’s most truant students. She would also need to find the time to organize daily attendance data. EBC has no official attendance officer, so all attendance responsibilities have fallen into Wright’s workload.

Attendance is no small problem at EBC. More than one-third of EBC’s students have failed to show up to school on a routine basis this year. On either side of a holiday, attendance will be twice that low. The attendance rate for ninth graders this year is just over 50 percent, down 18 percent from last year. Years of dismal attendance figures were an important factor in the decision to close EBC by 2011.

“You can write their parents a letter, you can call, but sometimes with these kids you’ve got to go to their house and pull them out or they’re just not going to come,” said Wright. “If I didn’t go out there, they wouldn’t come at all.”

Wright selected several names from the list, looked up the students’ addresses, and turned to a map of Brooklyn on her computer screen.

Then she hopped into her Ford Focus with a tidy stack of letters and a street map, the picture of organization.

9:15 a.m:

Wright rang the doorbell at a two-story home on Highman Avenue, the first address on her list. She looked out over a small front yard full of childrens’ toys and food wrappers as she waited for a response. She rang a second time. A muffled voice crackled through the broken intercom speaker. Wright asked if she could speak with the parent or guardian of the student on her list.

Jonathan had failed to show up for any of his Regents tests in January, and missed almost every school day in December, Wright explained. His name has been changed for privacy reasons.

The intercom went silent. Jonathan opened the front door. A toddler in footsie pajamas peaked from behind his leg.

“Mrs. Wright,” Jonathan grinned. The baby tugged on his track pants, and occasionally squealed.

“What are you doing here,” he asked, in a tone of feigned surprise.

Wright might have the best-known face at EBC. Anyone who has ever been late has visited her desk. Her work is constantly interrupted by students looking for conversation or help dealing with a teacher or class. Students huddle around her desk between classes and during lunch. Some of them call her mom.

“What am I doing here? I think you know what I’m doing here,” Wright said “What are you doing here?”

Jonathan explained that he left EBC more than a month ago for Brownsville High School. But his transfer had not gone to according to plan. He was rejected because of his poor attendance record.

“But don’t worry,” he tried to assure Wright. “I’m supposed to start at Pacific on Friday.”

“If it doesn’t work at Pacific,” Wright said, “call me, please.”

She handed Jonathan a letter addressed to his mother, a detailed list of his absences and the consequences she could face for his truancy, and turned back toward her car.

***

Wright is the last assistant family officer standing at EBC, a small public high school founded 15 years ago on a desolate corner of East New York. Last year, the schools chancellor forced EBC onto a list of schools to close because of low achievement scores and dismal attendance rates. Two other family workers were reassigned last year, as the school prepares to shutter its doors by 2011.

Wright, a 10-year veteran at EBC, plans to stick it out until the end. Despite attendance numbers that only seem to be getting worse, Wright continues to write letters, make calls and ring doorbells with enthusiasm.

Her duties range from keeping daily attendance records to accompanying students to the police station and hospital to making wake-up calls to any students who ask for one.

“Technically I’m the assistant family worker, but everybody just calls me the assistant, because I’m really the assistant everything.”

The visits, she said, are the most important part of her job.

Wright knows she has a hard sell. Some kids are forced to act as parents to their younger siblings, while their parents are away at work. Others have children of their own. And some are simply dissatisfied with EBC.

Wright, 52, knows of what she speaks. Her 20-year-old son left another Brooklyn high school without graduating.

“Kids don’t go to school because there is not enough offered,” Wright explained. “They want more sports, more types of classes. They want to go to bigger schools with more programs.”

She looked down at a roadmap and then out toward a street sign. “But they can’t get out of EBC because their attendance is bad and you have to have good attendance and good grades to be accepted somewhere else,” she said. “They’re more or less just stuck.”

10:45 a.m.:

Wright read the directions out loud as she made her way down East New York Avenue to the second stop on her itinerary, an apartment within an enormous housing project called Boulevard Houses.

“The hardest part is going into the projects,” she said. “I know I stick out like a sore thumb. But here, when they see you actually went out and looked for them, it makes them feel like somebody does care about them.”

Wright’s appearance is so plain that she manages to both blend in and stand out at once. Her black hair is pulled tightly back. The frames of her glasses are so thin that you hardly notice she is wearing them. A black down jacket, which is never zipped shut, swallows her slim frame. She wears denim and sneakers but somehow appears overdressed for the job. Her look is somewhere between street-smart librarian and overworked administrative assistant.

Wright parked her car outside a shuttered nursing home surrounded by vacant storefronts and broken glass. She was looking for a student called Charles. He had missed 68 out of 95 school days this year.

As Wright walked from one apartment building to another, she realized that the address she was looking for did not exist. She walked across a small park, looking for someone who could help. She passed several empty shopping carts and a swimming pool filled with garbage–not a single person.

“This place is empty,” Wright sighed. “I’d have better luck finding help in the middle of the desert.”

Her spotless white sneakers squeaked with each step as she headed back toward her car.

“This happens sometimes,” she said. “And it’s always to kids who I need to visit the most.”

***

Wright returned to EBC and entered the hallways amid a crush of students as they moved from one classroom to another. The bell rang but hardly anyone seemed in a hurry. Several students shouted her name, explaining why they had been late to school or asking where she had been. Wright responded to them by name as she made her way through the hall.

Walking toward the attendance office, she passed a sign decorated with stars and glitter and a short list of students with perfect attendance records.

“Those kids,” she said, “I don’t know a single one of them.”

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1 Comment

  1. I wish to thank Mr. Gergel for making the short film about the living conditions of Allendale County in South Carolina. God truly bless him. It’s a tragic story. I am a former resident of Allendale County, having lived in Fairfax, South Carolina. I still have two sisters and some other family members that still live there. My sister in Atlanta and I are brainstorming about some ways to do something to help our yet beloved town. Many have forgotten it, but we still remember. It reminds me of the scripture in the book of Luke where Jesus went to revive a girl that was pronounced dead. Jesus told the crowd that the girl was not dead, though she had all the outward signs of death, she was only asleep. Our town visibly looks dead, but it is only asleep. We need all the help we can to wake the people up. The people there have great potential, but what is potential when the person who has it doesn’t even know that it exists. Pray for us to find ways to help. Pray for Allendale.
    Robin Bamberg
    P.S. I would love for Mr. Richie Gergel to please respond back to me if possible by email. Thanks.

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