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Focus on Truancy Fills More Seats
New, intense effort with students, parents cuts unexcused absences
Saturday, May 31, 2008
By Jennifer Smith Richards
A 6-month-old anti-truancy campaign is making progress in Columbus schools, early figures show.
The proof, according to the first evaluation of Project KEY, is in figures such as these: Chronically truant students at Fifth Avenue Alternative Elementary used to be absent without an excuse an average of six times per month. Now, those 29 youths average 1.1 unexcused absences a month.
At Indianola Math, Science and Technology Middle, the 30 students who used to average 11.1 unexcused absences each month are down to 3.5. Similar gains have been made in the other four pilot schools.
"We have kids who have gone from three days a week coming to school to being here every single day. And not only just being here every single day, but being here with a smile on their face with great behavior, great academics," said Donna LeBeau, Indianola principal. "For some children, these mediations are getting to the heart of the issue, and we fix those issues."
Researchers say chronically truant students are at risk of dropping out and becoming involved in drugs, gangs and crime. The district has 17 social workers for truancy issues in about 120 schools.
A community group called BREAD, which stands for Building Responsibility, Equality And Dignity, started pushing for the district to do more about truant students in 2006. It gathered the district; county prosecutor; Juvenile Court; Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health board; and Children Services and created KEY (Keep Engaging Youth). The Educational Service Center of Franklin County was hired to run the program in six starter schools with a $300,000 budget from the county.
"You save all kinds of money down the road, you save all kinds of heartache down the road, if you've spent a few dollars upfront helping students stay in school, connect with their teachers and engage in good choices that will help lead to a good life," said Edwin England, the KEY coordinator.
Community Research Partners compiled the six-month report.
This is how the program works: Kids who have at least three unexcused absences get a warning letter from the county prosecuting attorney. That startles some parents into action, program leaders say.
After five unexcused absences, parents are invited to come in and talk with one of the three KEY advocates about why the child isn't attending school regularly. The advocates work for the educational-service center.
On average, it takes five phone calls to reach a parent. And of the parents who agree to come in -- roughly 355 so far -- about half show up.
Joy Hostetler, one of the advocates, said some parents initially are defensive or reluctant to talk about attendance. But sometimes the fixes their kids need are simple, such as more sleep or a new alarm clock.
"Missing the bus is oftentimes a major, major obstacle," she said. "Once the student misses the bus, parents are either gone and at work already or don't have transportation to take them to school, so the kid is kind of stuck. The solution, typically, is helping empower the student and parent to take control of their own life in terms of going to bed at a better time."
After 10 absences without a note, students and parents are to go before a truancy board in a neutral location, such as a church. But the board hasn't convened yet.
After 15 unexcused absences, the child and parent would be referred to Juvenile Court. Middle-school students are charged with truancy; parents of elementary children are charged with educational neglect. That has happened to 23 students, but the courts' caseloads are so large that truancy cases tend to move slowly.
KEY wants the students it serves to reduce their absences per month by 75 percent. Another goal is to have 30 consecutive days of attendance after mediation. About half of the 199 students who have been through mediation have achieved a 30-day streak.