District trying to solve problem of habitually truant pupils
It’s not an increase in truancy cases causing a stir in School District 51. Those numbers have been relatively steady for years. It’s the increasing number of habitually truant students with serious barriers to attendance administrators say have them stumped.
Principals and assistant principals from nearly a dozen District 51 schools voiced their concerns about absent students at a gathering with school board members last Saturday at Colorado Mesa University. The discussion lasted nearly 45 minutes, with administrators pleading for an answer for how to help an increasing population of students with mental health issues and household drama blocking their path to school.
Habitually truant students are defined in state statute as those who miss school without an excuse four times in one month or 10 times in one year. Kids in that category dipped slightly in District 51 from 2,288 in 2011-12 to 2,252 in 2012-13, according to the Colorado Department of Education. At this time, 3.75 percent of the district’s 21,894 students are habitually truant, compared to 4.54 percent at this time last year.
It’s the type of cases, not the number of them, crossing District 51 Attendance Director Fred Bolton’s desk in the last few years that concern him.
“The thing that is causing us grief is that even though numbers are better, the severity of cases are getting worse. We’re getting kids with much more serious problems,” Bolton said.
Most prevalent among those problems are mental health problems for kids or parents, sometimes related to drugs, and economically driven disfunction in families, Bolton said. An economic downturn like the one that hit the Grand Valley in early 2009 can lead to a lack of money for food or transportation, students working long hours while parents are out of work, and split households.
“It all adds to the problem,” Bolton said of economic stressors.
R-5 High School, which has the district’s highest truancy rate, received a grant last year to help them improve attendance through interventions and a 40-day class that teaches students skills like communication and conflict resolution. The steps have helped move the school’s attendance rate from percentages in the 60s to 72 percent last year and 80 percent this year, according to R-5 Principal Anna Goetz. But she said the school’s efforts are working mostly just for students who quit going to class in middle school because of social pressure or drug use, not teens with a larger, more long-term truancy problem. Goetz said the portion of truant students with a lengthy history of missing school has grown in the last five years at R-5.
“The big thing is, they can’t make themselves get out of bed and neither can their parents. We’re not sure what to do about that,” Goetz said.
Goetz said students with economic issues in the family concern her less because that problem usually resolves in time with enough school support and information about community services. It’s the kids who say they have to stay home because mom is suicidal or because they have anxiety that won’t let them approach the school’s doors that scare her.
“We’re not mental health professionals so we don’t have the skills or the resources to help somebody at that level,” she said.
Goetz said she knows other high schools are dealing with the same problems because each of those R-5 students likely came from a local high school. They’re also the same problems she heard as an assistant principal at Palisade High School before coming to R-5 in 2010.
Habitual truancy can develop later in childhood but often the hardest-to-solve cases start in elementary school, according to Mt. Garfield Middle School Principal Terrie Requa. Requa said schools want to help those students but they have to know the source of the problem first.
“We try to set up an attendance meeting with parents to see what the issue is,” Requa said. “Many times we don’t get anyone to show up to those meetings so we’re still struggling to find out why they’re missing school.”
While students who come to the school with a transcript full of absences are typically the hardest to schedule a meeting with, Requa said there are parents who respond to the school. Requa said sometimes all that’s needed is for the school to give the child an alarm clock or a reminder call to show up for school. Occasionally parents say their students won’t listen to them but will listen to the school. Requa has had parents with a child with anxiety or other mental health issues work with the school to allow the student to call home at lunch or have staff meet the child at their parent’s car when they’re dropped off at school.
Goetz and Requa agreed more counselors, support and consequences could help schools battle truancy.
“I definitely feel the sooner we can work with families at the elementary school level, the more it will help by middle or high school,” Requa said.
ADVOCATES FOR ATTENDANCE
While about 100 District 51 students a year and their parents end up in court for truancy, Bolton said 95 percent of those families opt to work with the Family and Adolescent Partnership to mitigate the source of the truancy rather than “thumb their noses at the magistrate” and face jail time for contempt of court. Bolton said the district tries to work with families before going to court, particularly because it may introduce another financial burden for parents already struggling to make ends meet.
“If you’re not careful you can make things worse for the family,” Bolton said.
Bolton said he has had to handle fewer cases, particularly the less severe ones, lately thanks to six grant-funded attendance advocates who began work in the district last year have helped lure many kids back to school. Nearly half of the 475 students advocates worked with last year improved attendance and 81 percent of those students had parents help to remove attendance barriers.
Grand Junction High and Central High have two advocates apiece and there’s one each at Fruita Monument and Palisade high schools. If a student at one of those high schools or nearby middle schools attends school no more than 80 percent of the time, an advocate will talk to the student and their parents at school or at the family home and ask what’s keeping them out of school.
Once advocates know the problem, they look for a solution. If a student has a busted transmission, they tell them about bus passes or offer a ride to school while the car gets fixed. If they’re being bullied, they’ll refer them to a counselor. If they’re sick, the advocate can drop off homework. If they’re behind in school or busy working as the family bread-winner, advocates can suggest alternative or accelerated credit programs.
The grant that funds the advocates will decrease funding next year and the following school year before ending. The district will have to budget more funding for the advocates in order to keep them.
The key to an advocate’s success is relationship building over time with kids and parents, according to Central High Attendance Advocate Debbie Miller.
“It’s making that phone call once more, being able to let them know no matter what goes on around you, we’re here,” Miller said.
Grand Junction High Attendance Advocate Barbara DeLosa said there is no timeline for those relationships or the work an advocate has to do to get a kid back in school and keep them there.
“We have kids who hook right into it. We have some I worked with last year just now coming back,” she said.
DeLosa said she calls to wake students up. She sees kids self-medicating mental illness with substance abuse. She drove a student to Mind Springs Health once while the student was having a breakdown.
Bolton said work with local mental health agencies are helpful but he knows schools are struggling with those students.
“We have great community partnerships with agencies but when that kind of stuff hits a community I don’t know that anybody can respond fast enough,” he said.
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Number of District 51 students with 10 or more unexcused absences in 2012-13 by school (net change from 2011-12)
Appleton Elementary: 5 (+5)
Bookcliff Middle: 37 (-3)
Broadway Elementary: 4 (+1)
Central High: 243 (-11)
Chatfield Elementary: 3 (+3)
Chipeta Elementary: 58 (+10)
Clifton Elementary: 51 (-15)
Dos Rios Elementary: 35 (+9)
Dual Immersion Academy: 1 (-4)
East Middle: 49 (+14)
Fruita 8/9: 58 (+3)
Fruita Middle: 58 (+8)
Fruita Monument High: 51 (-21)
Fruitvale Elementary: 21 (+1)
Gateway School: 0 (-4)
Grande River Virtual Academy: 0 (-1)
Grand Junction High: 278 (+8)
Grand Mesa Middle: 54 (-9)
Independence Academy: 29 (+12)
Lincoln Orchard Mesa Elementary: 15 (+1)
Loma Elementary: 1 (no change)
Mesa Valley Vision: 0 (no change)
Mesa View Elementary: 40 (+8)
Mt. Garfield Middle: 101 (+18)
New Emerson: 0 (no change)
Nisley Elementary: 22 (+2)
Orchard Ave. Elementary: 19 (-3)
Orchard Mesa Middle: 56 (-4)
Palisade High: 99 (+29)
Pear Park Elementary: 34 (no change)
Pomona Elementary: 3 (-6)
R-5 High: 23 (-14)
Redlands Middle: 33 (+17)
Rim Rock Elementary: 7 (+2)
Rocky Mt. Elementary: 47 (-7)
Scenic Elementary: 0 (-2)
Shelledy Elementary: 15 (+4)
Taylor Elementary: 43 (+10)
Thunder Mt. Elementary: 39 (-14)
Tope Elementary: 11 (no change)
West Middle: 30 (+10)
Wingate Elementary: 5 (+1)
Source: Colorado Department of Education.