September 20, 2008

First Courted, Then Counted Schools Use Treats to Maximize Attendance on State’s Annual Tally Date


It was 7:10 a.m. and the line of children and parents stretched across the gym at the Academy of Accelerated Learning, through the lobby and then down a long corridor of classrooms. Hundreds of people, families sharing a special time together, united by two things:

School and pancakes.

Oh, and one more thing: third Friday.

The pancake breakfast is a tradition at the southwest side elementary school in Milwaukee Public Schools. "There's something special about pancakes and school," said Principal Susan Miller as she cheerfully presided over the scene.

"My kids are really excited about it," said Felicia Wilson, as she waited in line with Keandra, a second-grader, and Keandre, a 5- year-old kindergartner.

But it's no coincidence that the event took place Friday. For school officials across Wisconsin, and especially in Milwaukee, where attendance is a problem and children often enroll weeks after school starts, it's the third Friday in September that's important, not pancakes. It's the official attendance day under state law, and it can have short- and long-term effects on numerous issues related to schools and school districts. Because of state and MPS rules, funding, staffing and sometimes even a school's sense of whether it is doing well are shaped by the third-Friday enrollment figures.

In Milwaukee, that goes for not only traditional public schools but also for the dozen or so charter schools operated independent of MPS and for the 120-plus private schools taking part in the voucher program. The enrollment numbers translate into the lifeblood of money.

Many schools take the day in stride, but at some, special elements are added to the day as a way to entice everyone possible in the door. Pizza parties, dances, movie passes, breakfasts, extra entertainment are common.

At Stuart Elementary on the northwest side, students were told the Milwaukee Brewers' racing sausages would make an appearance Friday. At Riley Elementary on the south side, free backpacks with school supplies were to be distributed.

Judy Merryfield, principal of the Milwaukee Academy of Science, a charter school separate from MPS, said students were told that if everyone in a class was present Friday, the students in that class would be given an extra day off from meeting the school's requirement for wearing uniforms.

Willie Jude, principal of the Business and Economics Academy of Milwaukee, also an independent charter school, said student council elections were scheduled for Friday because many students like to take part in that. In younger grades, students were given extra treats.

MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos told School Board members Thursday that administrators had been monitoring enrollment daily leading up to Friday. He forecast that the final systemwide total would be about 1,500 more than what had been forecast for this fall -- but that would mean a decline overall of about 2,000 in MPS enrollment, instead of the bigger decline that had been expected as of spring.

Official figures won't be released for a few weeks, and there are provisions for counting students who were not present on Friday if they meet other conditions for showing they were enrolled. But the emphasis in the enrollment battle remains on Friday.

Not that that aspect mattered too much at the Academy of Accelerated Learning, where preparations to serve about 700 people were paying off. Miller said that while the pancake breakfast was started as a third Friday enticement, it has now become a tradition, bringing more parents into the school than any other event in the year.

Carrie Spychalla was there not only with her husband, Dave, and their 4-year-old kindergartner, Abby, but with two younger children in a stroller.

"Abby wanted to show me her school," she said.

And, while they were at it, get a couple of pancakes, some sausage links, either milk or juice -- and her place on the official roll of who is enrolled this year.

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