Trouble with truancy

Crackdown on absenteeism not only answer to problem

Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo A chair sits upside down on a desk signaling that a student is absent at New York Elementary School, as Lawrence's 2006-2007 attendance rate ranked in the top 50 among Kansas school districts, but administrators and school staff members still spend a considerable amount of time working with families and students to curb frequent absences.

Lawrence schools overall have a good track record on student attendance compared with other districts in the state.

But school administrators, staff and law enforcement still aren’t shy about flexing their muscles when it comes to truancy.

So far this school year, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson’s office has filed 50 new “Child in Need of Care” court cases for 16- and 17-year-old Lawrence students, which has forced parents to deal immediately with the issue.

High school administrators approached Branson in January 2006 about getting tougher on truancy, and LHS Associate Principal Matt Brungardt said the program is better now.

But it still can be a work in progress to reach students in the most severe cases.

“The benefit of it is it does force family members to engage with us,” Brungardt said.

Positive reinforcement

Angie Logan says she has seen students make a turnaround from the truancy list to the honor roll.

But the Lawrence High School social worker said school administrators and staff members still have plenty of work to do at curbing student absences.

“We need to figure out ways to better engage students. Our system is kind of old, and we need to update the way we do things,” said Logan, who is also a Kansas University social welfare graduate student.

On average, the highest absence rates this school year have been at schools that have the highest population of students whose families qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches, according to the school district.

But overall, the Lawrence district does well compared to statewide numbers, as in 2006-2007 when the district’s 96.1 percent attendance rate was 43rd among all Kansas districts.

School board member Scott Morgan said it is important to watch attendance rate numbers to look for trends.

“The reason it matters is because everything else is pointless if the kid doesn’t show up,” Morgan said.

LHS English teacher Jeff Plinsky said with more accountability being placed on schools and teachers, it is also a responsibility for families and students to make sure teachers have someone to instruct.

“If that student isn’t coming to class, it’s very difficult for us to teach them,” he said.

At elementary schools, administrators also tap into resources to work with families who have chronically absent students, said New York School Principal Nancy DeGarmo.

Schools are accountable each year for attendance rates, and they work to keep improving each year, she said.

It is logical for illness to account for a certain percentage, but principals work to curb other absences. Especially at schools with more lower-income families, it can require working with them on finding rides to school or even temporarily providing city bus passes if the family car breaks down, DeGarmo said.

“It’s just a matter of finding out what the parent needs,” she said.

Truancy measures

Douglas County has also benefited from a longtime Truancy Diversion Program that pairs Kansas University student caseworkers with families, DeGarmo said.

But high school administrators asked Branson’s office to get tougher on truancy because it gave them stricter measures to work with 16- and 17-year-old students who weren’t complying with the diversion.

Free State High School Assistant Principal Mike Hill said administrators have also seen a decrease in truant students since the tougher measures were in place, but it is also important for school and law enforcement to use “the carrot” to help students in addition to “the stick” for appropriate cases.

According to district policy, truancy constitutes three consecutive unexcused absences, any five in a semester or seven in one year. Junior high and high school students get an unexcused absence for missing one class, and elementary students get them if they miss one hour or more.

“We have personnel who reach out to kids on all sorts of different levels to make them feel welcome here,” Hill said.

Schools and law enforcement also help some truant students enroll in other programs, like signing up to take the General Education Development test.

Logan, the LHS social worker, said staff members still need to come up with resources and a better way to provide positive reinforcement for students flagged for truancy. Often, staff members are forced to pay for the rewards out of their own pocket, which means they can’t do it as frequently.

She and LHS Assistant Principal Beryl New are part of a school committee studying the issue, and they have recruited 21 teachers to help. Logan said the group would likely end up writing a grant application to gain resources to do more positive reinforcement with truant students.

“We need to find ways to engage students that work,” she said.