Dec. 12, 2008 — By the end of the first marking period last year, only 39 students at Joseph Gomez Elementary School had perfect attendance records, but efforts made by parents, faculty and staff members has, over the past few months, helped to increase the number to 166.
The students were honored Thursday with a ceremony held at the school's campus on St. Thomas. In addition to receiving gift certificates, and being rewarded with a brief party after lunch, the students also got a chance to applaud their parents and the 15 teachers who were also recognized for coming to school every day for the first marking period, which wrapped at the end of October.
An additional 26 students in kindergarten through sixth grade were also recognized for showing "remarkable improvement" in attendance.
"There was a time when our students weren't coming to school, and that caused some serious problems," Joseph Gomez principal Freida Farrow said. "In 2006, after we took the VITAL (V.I. Territorial Assessments of Learning test), we were among those schools listed in the newspaper for not making adequate yearly progress (AYP) in math and reading.
"Can you imagine? What killed us, though, was that our children weren't coming to school — to make AYP, we were required to have 95 percent attendance and we were at 93 percent."
Something had to change. Parades were held. Free T-shirts touting the importance of coming to school were handed out. While letters were also mailed to parents of students with poor attendance records, one faculty member even worked on bringing in some funds to subsidize the efforts.
"We had to get the kids excited about coming to school," said Gomez social worker Judith Ottley. "And when I saw the Community Foundation was offering grants to help fund incentives to boost attendance, I applied for one. I received $500 in May or June of this year, and what we've been trying to do is stir up some friendly competition between the classes, give out trophies and certificates every marking period and get the kids in the habit of coming to school."
Ottley was just as excited as the students Thursday, saying that the ceremony was a "total surprise" for the kids.
"They have no idea what's going on," she whispered, as the students filed into the cafeteria. "We're also giving trophies to the teachers who had the most students with perfect attendance records, and presents to those teachers who also had perfect records. They're the role models, you know, and they have to set the example for the students."
There was no end to the laughter, loud applause and smiles that filled the cafeteria Thursday, as students reveled in the praise showered upon them by Farrow and other faculty members. They clapped in unison for their fellow classmates, and screamed out the names of the teachers that stepped up to the podium to receive their awards.
The classrooms of Tonia Savage, the school's second grade teacher, along with fourth grade teacher Aria Duncan and sixth grade teacher Myra Gumbs, boasted the most students with perfect attendance records.
"It's really important for me to make sure my kids get to school every day — we wake up early together, get ready together, and I always drop them off," said Josette Samuel, whose daughter Jonisha picked up a perfect attendance award. "Some days that means we have to get up at 6 a.m. And I always try to make sure they're here on time, ready to learn."
All of the honorees' parents were also given certificates for making sure their children came to school.
Thursday's ceremony was really an "inspiring" activity that turns the process of going to school everyday into an "important habit," said Randolph Thomas, the Department of Education's director of planning, research and evaluation.
"How many of you know who Barack Obama is?" Thomas asked the students during the ceremony.
Every hand shot up immediately.
"Well Barack Obama went to some of the best schools in the United States," Thomas said. "And guess what? He went to school every day. So you all should encourage your peers to do the same."
Gomez plans on continuing its initiatives until attendance levels hit 100 percent.
"We're going all the way," Ottley said.
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