Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fighting Truancy in Harlem


Another night, another great Center for Court Innovation event.  Actually, two great Center events: the first anniversary of the Brownsville Youth Court and the latest graduation ceremony for our Attendance Achievement Program in Harlem.  Alas, I couldn't go to both.  After flipping a coin, I landed in Harlem.

The Attendance Achievement Program is our effort to forge a new response to chronic absenteeism at the middle school level.  Participants in the program, which works collaboratively (and intensively) with two local schools, receive an individualized plan to improve their attendance as well as links to needed supports.  They are also asked to come to school on a regular basis for special meetings with a retired judge (in this case, our old friend Eileen Koretz, formerly of the Midtown Community Court) and program staff to review progress, make adjustments, and receive encouragement.

Tonight, we honored more than a dozen young people who had graduated from the program and improved their attendance significantly.  Keynote speaker Kai Smith (a former Center staffer) offered an inspirational message based on his life experience growing up in East Harlem, falling into a life of crime,  and (eventually) turning his life around.  His theme was "never give up," but the words that resonated most powerfully with me were: "I was smart and didn't even know it."  It took 16 years in prison for Kai to figure it out.   Today, he's pursuing a PhD.  

How many other smart kids are out there in a place like East Harlem, their potential untapped?   Would the existence of the Attendance Achievement Program have made a difference in Kai's life were we around back in the 1970s when he was growing up?   Will the improved attendance of the kids graduating tonight be sustained throughout high school?  Impossible to know the answers, of course.

But there was no doubting the palpable pride of the graduates and their families tonight.  I left Harlem feeling like the Attendance Program had put an important building block in place for these families that they can build on in the future.