Here’s the thing about school absenteeism: It’s a growing problem, and almost always a symptom of something else. It could be illness, a transportation problemthe family car broke downor a student who is tired from working nights babysitting siblings or tending the family restaurant.
“Sometimes, missed school days just sneak up on a family; a snow day here, and a sick day there, can add up fast,” says Canyons District’s truancy specialist Suzanne Ren. “There are as many reasons for absenteeism as there are students who struggle getting to school.” But from where Ren sits, that gives her an advantage because, she says, “it means the universe of possible solutions is limited only by our imagination.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recently declared September, “School Attendance Awareness Month,” signaling a renewed focus on combatting chronic absenteeism. In Utah, one in seven students is chronically absent, defined as missing at least 10 percentor 18 daysof school for any reason. These students on average have lower test scores, grades and graduation rates. Those who are chronically absent in grades 8-12 are seven times more likely to drop out of high school.
“Chronic absenteeism is one of our most urgent problems, but we are seeing encouraging strategies and solutions in schools throughout Utah. Creating a schoolwide culture of good attendance, using data, and personalizing outreach and support will help increase attendance rates and improve individual student outcomes,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson in a news release.
Canyons District has many tools at is disposal, but the common denominator is collaboration, or schools communicating with students and families to understand the source of attendance problems and find mutually workable solutions. “It is a continual work in progress. We involve the student and parents, counselors, administrators, and sometimes the Juvenile Court System. It truly does take a village to provide all the necessary resources and supports for students to be successful,” Ren says.
Research does show it’s best to intervene early. “The earlier we can catch students, the sooner we can provide supportive interventions,” explains Canyons’ Student Support Services Director Tamra Baker. To help spot at-risk students, Baker’s team worked with Canyons’ Information Technology Department to build an Early Warning Signs data system capable of flagging for follow-up those students who show sudden swings in behavior, stagnant academic achievement, or a spike in absenteeism. Schools reach out personally to families, sometimes meeting with them in their homes. Often, putting a parent on notice is all it takes to get a student back on track, Baker says.
In some cases, parents need to be convinced of the importance of regular attendance. Eighteen missed school days translates to two a month, which may not seem like much. But that’s all it takes for a student to fall behind his or her peers. “By the time students reach middle school, some have fallen so far behind that they’ve lost hope. Everything we do is try to put hope back into the educational experience for them,” Baker says.
That guiding philosophy is what drove Canyons to undertake an experimental truancy court mediation program with 3rd District Juvenile Court. Students in middle school and the ninth and tenth grades who are marked as chronically absent or truant, and yet have scant criminal or behavioral-issues on record, are invited to enter into mediation before the case is sent to juvenile courtthe aim being to correct the students’ path before it leads to additional and more complex legal entanglements. “We try to take away the hammer approach,” said Bob Curfew, a program coordinator with the court. “We want it to be non-adversarial.”
The mediations are held at the students’ school; the student, parent, and school personnel are allowed to share their thoughts about the root of the problem; and then a mediator meets with both sides to find a workable solution. The parties talk about whether a class-schedule change is needed or if a switch in teachers would help the student feel more apt to attend. “Sometimes parents are frustrated because they’ve tried everything and nothing has succeeded,” Baker says.
When both parties agree on a solution, a written Memorandum of Understanding is produced and a copy is given to both parties. The school follows the progress of the student to ensure compliance with the agreement. Failure to follow-through results in a court referral and threat of detention.
But it rarely comes to that. In the pilot year of 2014-15, CSD completed 15 mediations with only one resulting in a court referral. In 2015-16, CSD completed more than 30 mediations with a 93 percent success rate. This compares to the 30-40 percent success rate for traditional truancy court, says Baker. “To have such a high success rate is reason enough to continue this program. But it also spares administrators, families and the time-starved court system from a prolonged discovery process and the scheduling of court dates.”
Often, the path of least resistance is the path of hope, explains Ren. “When I have a student who is close to being court-involved, I will always tell them, ‘There are not many things in life that are fee. Your public education is one of them. And there are even fewer things in life that can’t be taken from you. Your education can never ever be taken from you.'”