The 550 students at Wheatley Elementary School in Northeast eagerly answer roll call twice daily, compete for places in the perfect attendance "Hall of Fame," and vie for banners for the best class attendance record.
They aim to maintain the 98.6 percent attendance record that recently won them the D.C. public schools' best attendance award for the 1984-85 school year. The two-foot tall trophy, improved test scores and added confidence are among the benefits that have resulted from the combined efforts by pupils, parents and faculty to reduce absences.
"We feel if we provide the necessary incentive programs, and also make basic programs interesting and informative, children will improve in attendance and academically, socially, mentally and physically," said Wheatley Principal Marjorie U. Haigler. "It gives them a feeling of self worth, and it makes them want to learn and come to school."
Wheatley, located just north of Florida Avenue at Montello Avenue and Morse streets in Northeast Washington, stands in the middle of Trinidad, a small working class community with an average income of $9,000.
Trinidad is a melange of sturdy brick row houses occupied by homeowners and rows of small apartment buildings. Half the Wheatley students are eligible for free lunches.
Outwardly it resembles a typical inner city neighborhood plagued with poor school attendance, but those appearances are deceiving.
Haigler instituted the twice-daily attendance checks, the posting of the Hall of Fame every three months of those without absences and the awarding of banners to classrooms with the best attendance records..
Guidance Counselor Daniel Ayala has also begun individual and group counseling for students who are often absent. One chronic truant has been receiving treatment at a local mental health center for depression following the death of his mother, Ayala said.
Since becoming principal 2 1/2 years ago, Haigler also has enhanced the standard curriculum by adding programs for students who are "academically talented" and for those with learning disabilities.
Coupons for Pizza Hut are given to those who complete regular reading assignments, and all students are invited on weekly haircut outings and "career awareness" field trips.
Wheatley subscribes to the philosophy that good school attendance is the first step to future success.
Third-grade teacher Jeanne L. Chase, whose class holds the banner for best attendance, said, "The skills they're learning now -- the responsibility to be somewhere at a particular time and be there daily -- I think that sense of commitment will stick with them."
Marilyn Tyler Brown, assistant superintendent for student services, praised Wheatley and the other two attendance award winners, Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest and Dunbar High School in Northwest. "These are our role models," Brown said. "Attendance and achievement go hand in hand."
Among Wheatley students, the spirit of healthy competition is catching.
"This school makes us feel proud," said fifth grader Katina Cousar, who as a student council representative keeps the attendance tally for her class. "Our goal is to get an education and have jobs and not just throw our lives away like most people do."
Marcia Coles, another fifth grader and student council member, added: "Everybody in the school wants their class to have good attendance. Everybody wants their class to have the banner."
Many at Wheatley attribute the improved test scores partly to the improved attendance. Third graders at the school scored on the fourth-grade reading level in 1982 and on the fifth-grade level last year. In math their scores were 3.8 in 1982 and 4.6 in 1985 (compared with a 3.8 national average). Sixth-grade reading scores were at the fifth-grade level in 1982 but rose to the sixth-grade level 1985. Sixth-grade math scores were 5.5 in 1982 and 7.1 in 1985 (compared with a 6.8 national average).