Probate Judge John Keyes
Probate Judge John Keyes ()

Many educators say that a child’s success or failure in school is an accurate predictor of success or failure in life.

That’s why New Haven Probate Court Judge John Keyes and other state officials are working with students in the New Haven school district to improve attendance rates. They are about to launch an Attendance and Engagement Clinic for two New Haven schools, aimed at 56 students in fourth grade and under.

Through the program, state and school officials will work closely — in workshops and private meetings — with parents whose children are chronically absent. They intend to provide information and help with referrals for services and other resources. They also may even be able to provide scholarships for summer and after-school programs.

“Hopefully we’ll motivate kids,” Keyes said.

Transportation problems, addiction and other health issues will be addressed.

Keyes said that the great thing about this program is that it involves different departments who are all coming together for one goal. “This gets the court, DCF, and the school in the same room,” Keyes said.

Keyes said they decided to start the clinic in New Haven because it had been so successful in Waterbury. There, the Waterbury Regional Children’s Probate Court and the Waterbury public school system have had a truancy clinic for at-risk students since 2008.

In a 2013 report filed with the state, Waterbury Probate Court Judge Thomas Brunnock stated that educators referred 73 families from two Waterbury elementary schools to the program between September 2011 and February 2013.

Among the 29 pupils who took part for one year, unexcused absences decreased by 75 percent, excused absences went down by about 45 percent and unexcused tardiness dropped by 30 percent at one school and 46 percent at the other.

Susan Weisselberg, Chief of Wraparound Services in the New Haven Public School system, said that the students selected for the program have missed more than 10 days of school. “We all want to help families help their students,” Weisselberg said. “What they’ve seen in Waterbury is an increase in student attendance. They’re not missing reading. They’re not missing lessons. They are a part of it,” she said.

“There’s a lot of data on how important that is to a students’ success later on,” Weisselberg continued. “This is one piece of it, where families have challenges getting students to school.”

Weisselberg said that helping the family get any medicine a child needs is just one of the issues that will be addressed.

In a press release launching the clinic, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp said that every day of school that a child misses is a wasted opportunity.

“I’m very excited about this new outreach effort to engage parents and other caregivers of New Haven Public Schools students so we have ‘all hands on deck’ keeping young people enrolled, motivated, in school, and on track to graduate with the best possible chance for productive, adult lives,” Harp said.

Judge Paul Knierim, Probate Court Administrator, said that the clinic will bring together parents, educators and service providers to help solve the problems that cause children to miss school.

“I am so pleased to support this innovative partnership among the Probate Court, city of New Haven and DCF,” Knierim said. “As an institution with a tradition of helping children and families in a collaborative setting, the Probate Court is perfectly suited for this role.”

New Haven’s Quinnipiac School Principal Grace Nathman said her staff tracks absences and analyzes data daily, so they can help parents overcome barriers and make sure their kids get to school every day.

“Upon close analysis of the attendance data, we realized many of the issues could be remedied by educating parents on the importance of daily attendance, asking our teachers to reach out to parents to build strong relationships, handling transportation issues immediately and forging a relationship with community agencies. In my opinion, it is the most important message we can send to our parents and students because if they are not in school daily, they are not learning,” Nathman said.

Superintendent of Schools Garth Harries said that if students are to succeed, they need to be in the classroom learning, daily. “Even as early as kindergarten, chronic absenteeism holds our children back from being the best they can be. This Attendance and Engagement Clinic will help us work with important state and community partners to help parents support their children in coming to school every day and working toward a bright future,” said Harries.

The New Haven Regional Children’s Probate Court was the first children’s court to open in 2004. Besides serving families in New Haven, it also helps families from Bethany, Branford, East Haven, Hamden, Milford, North Branford, North Haven, Orange and West Haven.