c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

The Advertising Council and the U.S. Army, hoping to lower absenteeism in schools across the country, are introducing a public service campaign this week aimed at helping parents keep track of their children’s absences.

As many as 7.5 million students miss nearly a month of school each year, according to the Ad Council, which noted that chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10 percent, or 18 days, or more of school for any reason — is a critical warning sign that a student will fall behind and risk not graduating from high school.

The campaign’s website, BoostAttendance.org, was started Monday. Both it and the ads are timed to coincide with next month’s Attendance Awareness Month, a new nationwide initiative promoting the role of attendance in academic achievement.

The public service campaign is the latest phase of a continuing collaboration between the Ad Council and the Army that began in 2000. Messages over the years have encouraged students to stay in high school, and encouraged parents and community members to help them with mentoring and tutoring.

The latest advertising campaign follows the release last year of a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University that found that up to 15 percent of U.S. children were chronically absent from school, missing at least one day in 10 and impairing their academic progress. The study found that only six states and certain local school systems, including those of New York City and Oakland, Calif., measured chronic absenteeism.

Similar research conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School in 2008 found that 90,000 elementary school children were missing more than a month of school each year, while a high percentage missed even more. That study led the administration of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to set up an interagency task force on truancy, chronic absenteeism and school engagement in 2010.

The task force introduced its own public service ad campaign — created by Publicis Kaplan Thaler, part of the Publicis Groupe — with the Ad Council in May of 2012. Aimed at parents, its message was that students who miss 20 days or more in a single year are more likely to drop out. That message was adapted for the campaign by the Ad Council and the Army.

The new campaign focuses on chronic absenteeism because “we know without a doubt” that it is a “proven early indicator of the potential of dropping out,” said Priscilla Natkins, an executive vice president of the Ad Council. “We believe that by communicating with parents a very pointed message about absenteeism, we can actually change behavior and have a real impact on graduation rates.”

She said parents’ misconceptions about the importance of attendance include the belief that attendance matters only in high school, that excused absences will not hurt a child’s academic performance and that an occasional absence will not make a difference.

To combat these misconceptions, a 30-second radio spot features a speaker who says, “Students, when I call the reason or reasons for your absences throughout the years, please exit the auditorium without your high school diploma.” The speaker then enumerates the reasons, which include, “too tired, family trip, sick day, starting the holidays early.”

At the end of the spot, the announcer says, “Starting in the sixth grade, students who miss 18 days or more of school in a year for any reason will fall behind and risk not graduating high school. How many days of school has your child missed this year? Absences add up.”

Similar TV ads feature a teacher calling out the name of a student, Michael Adams, who responds that he is “here” from different locations outside of school, like an amusement park.

Print advertising carries messages like, “Too many absences equal no graduation. Absences add up. BoostAttendance.org.”

All advertising has been created in both English and Spanish; special ads distributed only in New York City will point parents toward a website where they can find borough-specific resources to address problems that can keep their children out of school, like illness or immigration issues.

The new campaign’s website lets parents sign up for a “Text2Track” SMS program that will help them keep track of their children’s absences. An attendance calculator on the site will also help them see the correlation between their child’s attendance and the child’s academic performance.

Rob Feakins, chief creative officer and president of Publicis Kaplan Thaler, said the new advertising took “the conventions of school” and flipped “them on their head. Instead of coming up to get a diploma, they’re asked to leave the auditorium. Any time you take convention and flip it, it’s more compelling.”


Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, an author of the study issued last year and an adviser to the Bloomberg administration’s task force, called the new advertising “evocative. What they’re trying to break through is not recognized as the critical issue it is.”

Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs, predicted that the ads would “reach the general public and make them think twice about the really straightforward reasons their kids don’t go to school.” He said, however, that his “big concern was that not enough resources are put into the harder-to-reach problems, deeper issues, like the intersection of poverty and education.”

Similarly, Claire E. Smrekar, an associate professor of education and public policy at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, called the campaign “a very limited approach to a very complex issue.”

She said the impact of the texting initiative could be affected by some parents’ ability to afford regular cellphone service, and suggested the campaign would be more effective overall if it focused “school by school on teachers, mentors, strong relationship-building.”