It begins in early December. Students pop into the attendance office at Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics brandishing plane tickets like doctor’s notes. Then the absences start, weeks before the winter break begins. And then comes the rolling return of students, stretching to the waning days of January.
The annual ritual that takes place at Gregorio Luperon also plays out in other pockets of the city that, like Washington Heights, have many students from the Dominican Republic.
Extended mid-year absences are by no means limited to Dominican students: The New York Times reported this week about post-vacation enrollment flux at Chinatown schools. But educators and community organizations say the phenomenon is especially pronounced at schools with many families from the Dominican Republic — and that the impact can be significant.
About 15 Luperon students missed some amount of school this December and January because they were in the Dominican Republic, according to Luperon’s attendance teacher, and two still hadn’t returned last week.
“They want to see their families back home, especially if they haven’t seen them in a long time,” said Mireya De La Rosa, an assistant principal at Gregorio Luperon who immigrated from the Dominican Republic herself.
Gregorio Luperon — a bilingual school that accepts recent immigrants from Latin America, the majority of whom are Dominican — has made efforts to curb the practice. Teachers broach the issue with families during orientation by telling them that it is not an acceptable for students to miss chunks of school, then remind students in the weeks before winter break about the consequences of missing school. Teachers are discouraged from doling out make-up work to students, so there are real consequences for leaving the country.
Now, only a “micro-, micro-minority” of Luperon families pull their children from school to return home over the holiday season, De La Rosa said.
But, she added, “For us, even five kids is a problem, because those five kids won’t do well when they come back and take the finals.”
Younger children don’t have final exams to grapple with in January, but they still lose out by missing a few days of school, said David Grisevich, an assistant principal at P.S. 152 in Washington Heights.
At P.S. 152, the scattered extended absences during the winter are like “a nagging toothache” for teachers, Grisevich said.
De La Rosa and Grisevich both suggested that the long vacations happen because young, working-class families try to squeeze the most out of a plane ticket by booking outside of peak travel days.
But the explanation for the phenomenon is more complex than just finances.
Joshua Ceballos and Jeyco Consepcion, eighth-graders at the Mirabal Sisters Campus, a Washington Heights building with three middle schools, both missed several days of school this year to spend extended time with their families in the Dominican Republic, Ceballas returning mid-January, Consepcion returning last Monday.
The boys each said that spending time with family was the primary purpose of his trip. “Everybody is there,” Consepcion said. “It’s like home.”
“Over there, it’s better. It’s more active, kids spend their time outside,” Ceballos said. He added that the fresh food is another draw: “Over here the food is fake. Over there, I go with my grandpa to the farm and we get the beans and corn and then my grandma cooks it.”
The boys also explained that schools are different in the Dominican Republic. There, schools hold four-hour shifts in the morning, afternoon, and evening from which students can choose.
Shondel Nero, an associate professor at New York University who directs NYU’s program in multilingual and multicultural studies, explained that in part because of “shift” schooling, missing school is generally not seen as a major problem in the Dominican Republic.
Religion also plays a role, said Nero, who facilitates a study abroad program in the Dominican Republic. Because most Dominicans are “staunch Catholics,” they celebrate holidays well into the month of January, she said. After Christmas and New Years, there are El Dia de los Reyes on Jan. 6 and Our Lady of Altagracia Day Jan. 21.
“Culturally speaking, family and faith are two of the most important things to Dominicans. Sometimes to the detriment of education,” Nero wrote.
Vianca Caceras, a mother of three who works at Turissa Travel in Washington Heights, has pulled her two oldest children out of their Bronx elementary school in the past for a lengthy trip back home. Many of her family members – including her youngest child – live in the Dominican Republic, and she said that it was worth the money and time to travel home with her children.
“The children have 180 days in school, so five days with their family is not a big deal. The family makes sure that the child grows up healthy. It’s important,” Caceras said.
“It’s difficult because two things are important,” she added. “Seeing my other family and my country and making sure that my babies go to school.”