First-grader Luke Benedict of Beechview wants to get to school and get there on time, according to his mom.
After all, this school year Pittsburgh Beechwood PreK-5 is honoring those who are on time and have good attendance with pizza parties, visits by the lion mascot, "purr-fectly punctual" buttons and other incentives.
"We never really had a problem. It just makes it easier to get him there in the morning, to get him moving. He's really proud to get recognized," said his mom, Michelle Benedict.
School attendance is up this year at Beechwood, as it is at about 80 percent of the district's 51 regular schools.
"I am really excited by the fact that so many of our schools are seeing the positive impact of paying attention to good attendance," said Pete Lavorini, project manager for college and career readiness for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Mr. Lavorini said schools are trying a variety of ways to boost attendance, including parent outreach, newsletters and incentives.
Pittsburgh schools are among those throughout the county engaged in a "Be There" campaign as part of a partnership with the United Way of Allegheny County, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and others.
While school officials used to look just at truancy rates, the campaign focuses on students who are chronically absent. Those students have missed 10 percent of more of the school year for any reason, both excused and unexcused.
While many school districts do not routinely collect chronic absenteeism data, Pittsburgh makes at-risk attendance reports available on a real time basis to all school staff and trains after-school partners to help in the effort.
In the first semester this school year in Pittsburgh, chronic absenteeism rates ranged from 6 percent at Pittsburgh Liberty K-5 to 63.2 percent at Perry High School.
The biggest drop from first semester last school year to first semester this school year was at Woolslair K-5 on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border where the rate of chronic absenteeism fell from 32.6 percent to 20.3 percent, a decrease of 12.3 percentage points.
At the same time, the rate grew at some schools, including Milliones 6-12, also known as University Prep, which grew from 30.9 percent to 45.5 percent. It now is 40 percent.
U Prep principal Derrick Hardy said the school is working with a community organization to improve attendance and is working "hard to improve the relationships and making the school relevant for all students."
The 10 schools with the largest percentage point improvement are, from the most improved, Woolslair K-5, Spring Hill K-5, Pittsburgh Online Academy, Brookline PreK-8, Beechwood K-5, Sterrett 6-8 in Point Breeze, Faison K-5, Greenfield K-8, Westwood K-5 and Science & Technology Academy 6-12 in Oakland.
Mr. Lavorini said, "For some of our schools, even though they made a lot of improvement, they still have upwards of a quarter or a fifth of students who are chronically absent. It's not as if we're saying, 'Great. You guys are done with that.' We want to continue the work we're doing."
Beechwood principal Sally Rifugiato said, "Once we started looking at some of the data for students, how many days they really missed and what it meant, it was really shocking. It feels good to be doing something about it that's positive."
In the first semester of the 2012-13 school year, 21 percent of the Beechwood students were chronically absent. At the end of the first semester this school year, 13 percent were, the lowest chronic absenteeism rate of the most-improved group.
In addition to being present, Beechwood emphasizes being on time. "We have a number of students who were chronically late. They're so improved; it's drastic," Ms. Rifugiato said.
Beechwood has a variety of incentives. Students who have the most improved or perfect attendance get to be greeters in the morning, wearing special T-shirts. They congratulate their schoolmates as they arrive on time.
On random days, the school lion mascot visits rooms that have perfect attendance. Each month, the classroom with the most days of perfect attendance gets a traveling lion statue in the room for a month. Each quarter, those who have perfect attendance -- about a fifth of the school -- have a special lunch with the principal. For one quarter, it was pizza.
While all absences count in the formal attendance reports, Ms. Rifugiato noted the school doesn't hold certain absences against students. Rooms can still earn a perfect attendance award even if a classmate misses for a funeral or a true illness.
In an effort to encourage better attendance, superintendent Linda Lane sent a letter to parents of chronically absent students recognizing that some absences are "unavoidable" but saying that missing too much school for any reason "can cause your child to fall behind academically."
Countywide, Kathryn Vargas, manager of programs for children and youth at the United Way of Allegheny County, said more than 150 organizations and nine school districts -- Carlynton, Chartiers Valley, Duquesne, Elizabeth-Forward, McKeesport Area, Pittsburgh, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills -- signed the pledge to promote school attendance.
More information on the countywide "Be There" campaign is available at unitedwaypittsburgh.org/be-there.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.