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Mixture of approaches to fight attendance problems

School districts across the area have been using a mixture of approaches to fight attendance problems.

Lisa Williamson, coordinator of Farmington Caring Communities and a middle school social worker, said Farmington, like other districts, has been proactive in the way they deal with attendance programs.

During the past five years, attendance groups have formed, the district has hired social workers and has started up Caring Communities. The district tracks attendance and contacts parents when there are multiple absences.

Williamson said some of the students just need a little guidance and direction.

“Some of these kids don’t get a lot of support for a variety of reasons,” Williamson said.

Some have parents who work two or three jobs and don’t have time to help them study. In other situations, education is not a priority in some homes.

Farmington Middle School Principal Joe Strobl said their school has had an attendance group for several years. The attendance group is for students with mild to moderate absences.

During the spring semester, a group of 10 seventh and eighth graders participated in the group. The group, which met twice a week, focused on social skills, community service, and peer mentoring. Students were rewarded on Fridays if they didn’t have absences during the week.

About 60 percent of the participants improved their attendance. Some had drastic changes in the attendance. One student went from missing 24 percent of school to only 8 percent.

Williamson said she has seen true leaders evolve out of the attendance group. The group builds many students’ confidence, which will then affect their life outside of school, too, she said.

The district’s overall attendance rate has been good. Williamson believes that is because of some of the programs that have started up and the different school clubs and activities. The middle school also offers incentives to students for perfect attendance.

Jerome Watson, director of Elementary Education for the district, said it is hard for a child to fall through the cracks.

“If you want to be a poor attendee, you really almost have to work at,” Watson said.

Williamson recalled one boy in particular who had to work at dodging the people who wanted to help him. Williamson said the boy eventually turned around and has started coming to school every day.

She believes when a child doesn’t get an education it affects the whole community.

Williamson said poor attendance is one of the biggest contributors to delinquency. When students miss several days, it takes away from a teacher’s time with other students who are attending regularly because the teacher has to get the student caught up.

At other schools like North County, administrators are trying different things to keep kids going to school.

Assistant Superintendent Mike Henderson said attendance is an important issue for schools. If students don’t attend regularly, it will be difficult for them to pass.

“We want to graduate every student,” Henderson said.

Henderson believes high school graduates have a better chance of getting a job and a better chance of being whatever they want to be. If students attend school regularly, they are likely to go to work regularly. Henderson said businessmen look at poor attendance as money out of their pockets.

Henderson said their district has an attendance group for fifth through eighth graders. Social workers through North County Caring Communities work with the students to improve their self esteem and try to make them feel comfortable in school. Henderson said the group has improved attendance in many of the students.

Fifth to 12th grade at-risk students can participate in the IDEA program. Students are considered at-risk if they have problems with grades and attendance or problems at home. For a few hours each day, students get extra assistance and support outside of the typical classroom setting.

In addition, North County has an alternative school for middle school and high school students who work better in a small group setting. The program is for students with the same problems as IDEA students but who also have discipline problems.

The district is getting ready to start up another program for high school students who have fallen behind in school.

A GED Option program will be offered for students at least 16 years old who have fallen at least a year behind their cohort group.

“If they are 16 and a freshman with three credits, the chance that we can ever get them to graduation is not real good,” Henderson said. “They would have to be in school until they were 20.”

Henderson said the students will take GED classes for three hours a day and then academic or UniTec classes for the remaining four hours. The students will be able to obtain a diploma.

“It may be a GED Option diploma but it’s a diploma,” he said.

When nothing else works

If nothing else works and the attendance problems are severe, there are other options.

When home visits and other means of intervention aren’t working, the district can contact either a hotline or the prosecuting attorney.

Parents can be held more accountable at the elementary school level. Parents can even be charged with educational neglect.

Parents can actually be fined up to $300 and jailed for up to 15 days in the county jail for not sending their children to school. Upon a conviction, a parent would be required to enroll the child within three school days. If a child is not enrolled or fails to attend, each school day missed will become a separate violation.

The prosecutor gets involved when the situation gets referred by another agency or by the school district. Prosecuting Attorney Wendy Wexler Horn said she has gotten requests to file educational neglect charges.

In fact, social workers from the local schools have recently formed a group to discuss the problems they are having and what approaches are working. They have found they are having some of the same problems when it comes to attendance.

Recey Brackett, coordinator of North County Caring Communities, said a committee of social workers determines what cases need to be referred to the prosecuting attorney.

“It’s not done on a regular basis,” Brackett said.

She estimated about one to two cases from the school districts are referred in one year.

“I don’t want parents to think we are out to get them,” she said. She added it is a last resort for the social workers. The committee tries other alternatives before handing it over to the prosecutor.

Horn said she has filed about a handful of these cases.

When a child gets older, it becomes more difficult for parents to make sure their children are attending classes.

If the child is older and the parent is trying to get the student to attend, the student is held accountable. The child can be placed on probation or placed in a Youth Services facility through juvenile court.

In some cases, there is a reason why the student is not going to school. It may be because they have a drug problem or because the student is more worried about trying to survive. If that is the case, the juvenile office offers appropriate services to improve the situation.

Circuit Court Judge Sandra Martinez hopes the truancy court program, which is starting up this fall, will help them catch these kind of problems early-on.

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