How schools are tackling truancy

Schools personalize programs designed to bring students back to class
By: | Issue: February, 2015
January 29, 2015

District leaders across the country are broadening and personalizing their approaches to attendance because the old way of sending truants and their families to court often fails to bring students back to school.

“It’s important to get to the root of why students aren’t coming to school and be able to align the solution with the problem,” says Gerry House, president of the Institute for Student Achievement and a former superintendent. “If you take the punitive approach, more than likely you’re not going to see any improvement in the attendance.”

Students miss large amounts of school for a variety of reasonsÑfrom chronic illness to caring for younger siblings to jobs, disinterest and behavioral issues. And academic success and, in some states, funding depend heavily on students being in class.

While there is no national standard, chronic absence is generally defined as missing more than 10 percent of schools days. And schools have long sent counselors to the homes of chronically absent students and have connected families to badly needed social services.

While those efforts continue, districts that have had success cutting truancy are also working more closely with courts to keep truant students out of the juvenile justice system; adding specialists to monitor and react swiftly to absences; and directing principals to make attendance a top priority.

“In our quest for academic achievementÑas we move to more active learning and the Common CoreÑattendance will matter even more,” says Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that helps districts develop solutions to chronic absenteeism. “Once we get more active learning and more innovative learning, kids can’t make up for it at home. They need to be in the classroom to get it.”

Truancy impacts funding

In Texas, truancy has ramifications beyond academics. State funding for districts is determined, in part, on a district’s annual attendance rates. So last spring, the 15 school districts in and around sprawling San Antonio launched a truancy program with the city and surrounding Bexar County. The effort is overseen by a commission panel that includes judges, elected officials, a superintendent and a prosecutor.

“We want to truly make court referrals the last resortÑmany of these issues can be resolved at the campus level,” says Vicky Sullivan, director of pupil personnel at San Antonio’s 103,000-student Northside ISD, the fourth largest district in the state.

Even before formation of the truancy committeeÑwhich includes Northside Superintendent Brian T. WoodsÑthe Northside district hit a record 96 percent attendance rate last school year.

Starting last September the truancy committee launched a pilot program in which the city court provides Northside ISD with juvenile case managers who can intervene before students are sent to a judge for being chronically absent, meaning they’ve attended school less than 90 percent of school days. The program started at Northside ISD’s Holmes and Brandeis high schools and the 26 middle and elementary schools that feed into them.

The case managers, working with school administrators and truancy specialists, create a “pretrial diversion contract” as a last step before a truant student ends up in court.

The case managers meet with students and families to create the contract agreement, which can provide students with public health and other community servicesÑsuch as substance abuse treatmentÑthat can tackle the problems that may be causing chronic absences. The contract also may require families to attend parenting classes and to regularly report attendance to the court.

“It’s providing parents and students one last opportunity to resolve the issue so it does not end up in truancy court,” says Sullivan of San Antonio.

San Marcos ISD in central Texas relies on local business to help spread the message about the importance of attendance. A local pest control company agreed to help out, having their exterminators hand out magnets with information about the impacts of absenteeism on achievement and funding when they go on service calls. A local taxi company posts similar information in its cabs, says Hilary Kouhana, the attendance officer for the 7,700-student district.

“Last year was the first time in 10 years that we’ve had the best attendance we ever had,” Kouhana says. “It’s the emphasis of everybody pitching in at each of the campuses.”

Kouhana has made about 1,500 visits to the homes of truant students over the last few years. Her goal is to solve the root problem that’s causing a student to miss school. For instance, if students can’t afford glasses, the district can connect families with the appropriate social services. The district also maintains a closet of donated clothes for needy students.

The district also works with a local healthcare system that provides two counselors who can offer therapy to students suffering emotional problems. The counselors meet regularly with the students but also can refer them for more intensive psychiatric help and medication.

“Sometimes just knowing there is somebody to talk to makes students more likely to come to school,” Kouhana says. “They’ll have somebody to turn to if they’re dealing with emotional issues.”

A simpler solution to truancy is knowing where all students are at 10 a.m., the time in Texas when attendance is officially recorded and numbers are sent to the state. She has worked with building administrators to count students whoÑat 10 a.m.Ñmay be somewhere other than their classroom, such as with a counselor or in a principal’s office.

Cutting absences in early grades

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Connecticut, chronic absenteeism has been cut drastically in kindergarten and first grade by officials at the Consolidated School District of New Britain, an urban district of more than 10,000 students near Hartford.

Each school has an attendance teamÑmade up of administrators, teachers and other staffÑthat meets weekly. The district also generates attendance reports every 10 days, so absenteeism problems can be identified and responded to more quickly.

The district chose to focus on early grades because kids who miss school at that age can fall significantly behind their peers academically and will be more likely to drop out later, says Joe Vaverchak, the district’s attendance supervisor.

“You’re not going to solve the problem in 10th grade because the problem has festered over the yearsÑyou’re only going to solve one case out of 30 when it gets to that level,” Vaverchak says. “But if you can get kids in first and second grade reading proficiently, that’s a leg up right away.”

In 2011, 30 percent of the district’s kindergarteners and 24 percent of first graders were chronically absent, meaning they missed more than 10 percent of school days. That’s when two part-time family-intervention specialists were hired to work with families of students chronically absent from the district’s 10 public elementary schools.

Many young, single mothers in New Britain and many families are struggling financially and can’t afford basic necessities. On home visits, the specialists explain how attendance is connected to achievement, but they can also connect families with local agenciesÑsuch as the YWCA, police department and Boys & Girls ClubÑthat can assist with health, clothing, transportation and other issues that keep students out of school.

“We’re not coming into houses and putting the hammer down on somebody and saying we’re here because you’re going to be in trouble,” Vaverchak says. “We’re there to talk about the issues we can help with.”

Chronic absenteeism in kindergarten dropped to less than 18 percent in 2012-13 and to 13 percent last year. The rate for first grade dropped to 13.5 percent and then to 9.5 percent during those same years. Principals are a key part of the effort, because only they can truly make attendance a priority in their buildings, Vaverchak says.

“All principals are on boardÑthe whole district is on board,” Vaverchak says. “When you walk into a building, they’re talking about attendanceÑthat’s something I didn’t see for many years.”

Equity in attendance

Students in Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) have made great academic strides in recent years. In 2007, in the district that serves predominantly low-income neighborhoods in and around New Orleans, just 23 percent of the students scored proficient in statewide assessments, while 60 schools received an F on state rankings. Today, 60 percent of students are proficient and only five schools were given a failing grade.

“We’ve made significant academic gains and we wanted to start to focus on areas of equity to make sure we’re serving all kids well,” RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard says.

To that end, RSD and the Orleans Parish School Board have launched a Youth Opportunity Center pilot program this school year to provide new services to the most needy and chronically absent students. Last year, approximately 6,500 New Orleans students missed at least 10 percent of school.

A first step was locating the center in the RSD’s modern headquarters’ buildingÑin the past, truant students were taken to a less hospitable place, Dobard says. “It’s not housed next to a prison complex, like the previous one,” Dobard says. “By housing it in an office building, kids may wonder what they have to do to get a job in a building like this.”

Students may be referred to the Youth Opportunity Center by teachers or administrators, or taken there by police. But the students aren’t punishedÑthey get personal attention from case managers hired by one of the two school districts.

“We work on connecting families to resources related to the enrollment concerns, whether that’s housing, health, transportation or child care,” Dobard says. “Whatever is causing the absence, we immediately try to link them with the services to help recovery.”

While the program is too young to have generated much data, Dobard says students and families have been receptive to the counseling and the assistance offered. For instance, the district has brought child-care providers into schools to serve students who have children of their own and need help with childcare.

“Any time you have young people who are not in school, that is a negative drain on society as a whole,” Dobard says. “Often, we find truancy is a gateway to other forms of delinquency.

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.