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Can Alarm Clocks Boost School Attendance?: The Parent Organizing the Drive Says Little Things Can Make a Big Difference for Children in Distress.

July 15, 2008

By Ann Doss Helms, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Jul. 15–Every year, Charlotte-area agencies collect mountains of school supplies and winter coats for needy kids.

What if someone held an alarm-clock drive to help students wake up for school?

Don’t laugh. Gwen Forney, who recently retired after 20 years as a Mecklenburg County social worker, wants to mobilize parents, churches and other groups to cut absences in half.

“You can get the best teachers and curriculum, the best tutors and mentors — it wouldn’t make a lot of difference if they don’t show up for school,” says Forney, the mother of an Independence High student and a Vance High graduate.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders agree: Failing test scores and high dropout rates are often linked to excessive absences.

Forney doesn’t think clocks alone can tip the balance. But in her years as a community outreach worker with the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services, she saw how such a simple thing can be an obstacle for families who can barely afford food and rent. She saw children being raised by frail grandparents who couldn’t drive. If they missed the bus, they missed school.

“You have kids missing 20, 30, 40 days,” she said. “I’ve seen 60 days and no (legal) intervention.”

Forney has launched the nonprofit Bright Hopes, which she wants to roll out with an August rally. Her vision: Students will pay $2 to join, with $1 going to that child’s school and $1 to the countywide effort. Both would use the money — along with more she hopes to raise in grants and contributions — to hold events and provide prizes for students who cut their absences in half compared with 2007-08. Each student joining would also need an adult — parent, relative, pastor, family friend or other caring grown-up — who will encourage the young person to get to school every day.

Forney knows the most troubled families will be tough to reach. She’s working on finding a high-poverty elementary school and a neighborhood church that can help connect her with the folks who most need guidance and encouragement.

“A lot of parents groom their children for failure,” Forney said. “They don’t mean to. They need to be made aware.”

Every year, Charlotte-area agencies collect mountains of school supplies and winter coats for needy kids.

What if someone held an alarm-clock drive to help students wake up for school?

Don’t laugh. Gwen Forney, who recently retired after 20 years as a Mecklenburg County social worker, wants to mobilize parents, churches and other groups to cut absences in half.

“You can get the best teachers and curriculum, the best tutors and mentors — it wouldn’t make a lot of difference if they don’t show up for school,” says Forney, the mother of an Independence High student and a Vance High graduate.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders agree: Failing test scores and high dropout rates are often linked to excessive absences.

Forney doesn’t think clocks alone can tip the balance. But in her years as a community outreach worker with the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services, she saw how such a simple thing can be an obstacle for families who can barely afford food and rent. She saw children being raised by frail grandparents who couldn’t drive. If they missed the bus, they missed school.

“You have kids missing 20, 30, 40 days,” she said. “I’ve seen 60 days and no (legal) intervention.”

Forney has launched the nonprofit Bright Hopes, which she wants to roll out with an August rally. Her vision: Students will pay $2 to join, with $1 going to that child’s school and $1 to the countywide effort. Both would use the money — along with more she hopes to raise in grants and contributions — to hold events and provide prizes for students who cut their absences in half compared with 2007-08. Each student joining would also need an adult — parent, relative, pastor, family friend or other caring grown-up — who will encourage the young person to get to school every day.

Forney knows the most troubled families will be tough to reach. She’s working on finding a high-poverty elementary school and a neighborhood church that can help connect her with the folks who most need guidance and encouragement.

“A lot of parents groom their children for failure,” Forney said. “They don’t mean to. They need to be made aware.”

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