Seventy percent of the state’s 295 school districts don’t have any programs to reduce truancy. For the districts that do, the strategies vary widely.
On Thursday, Education Lab published a story about one Eastern Washington school district’s success in reducing truancy. One key of West Valley School District’s model is a community truancy board, which is a collaboration of the area’s juvenile court, its schools and community groups to address the root causes of students missing school. West Valley has been able to help as many as 82 percent of its truant students earn a diploma or GED, the best results of any Washington district to date. Yet 70 percent of the state’s 295 school districts don’t have boards likes these or any other truancy program.
In districts with other sorts of truancy strategies, the approaches vary widely. We interviewed three districts to get a better sense of what they’ve tried and how it’s working.
1. What are you doing to address truancy?
Glenn Hasslinger, supervisor of pupil management, Bellevue School District: We’ve been running our program for six years. To get it started, we worked with someone from King County who helped us set up a pilot program with the Center for Children and Youth Justice. With their help, we implemented a three-tier system. First, we send truant students to school engagement workshops, which are informational sessions for parents and students that give them the opportunity to come up with a plan to ensure students don’t miss more school. We also give them a contact at the district if they need help with something. This takes care of 50 to 60 percent of our truancy cases. Our second tier is the truancy boards, with community volunteers. They meet with each family for an hour, come up with a plan for the students to reduce truancy and then implement things for the student, parents and the district to do. The third tier is assigning students a case manager, who tries to get them hooked up with services and interventions that the district offers. We determine whether students need to move to the next tier by monitoring their attendance every two weeks and see how things are going– there is no magical number. I also talk to our contacts at the school who can inform me about how things are going.
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Jessie Jimenez, truancy representative, Seattle Public Schools: What we’re doing is mostly school based. According to the Becca Law, if students miss one day, then the school has to call or send a letter to their parents. If they miss two unexcused days, then the school makes them fill out a “student attendance agreement,” which triggers more interventions at the school. These can include things like tutoring offered by the YMCA and Seattle Public Libraries, making home visits, adjusting students’ school schedules and placing students in alternative schools that are smaller and specialize in hands-on education. After that initial meeting at the school, if the students misses seven unexcused days within the calendar month or 10 unexcused days in the whole school year, then the district brings them into a truancy workshop where they offer more court-based interventions. If students complete the workshop and don’t miss any more school within the 45 days that the court allows, then they don’t have to go to truancy court. If they do miss more days within that period, then their case gets taken to court.
Lance Goodpaster, assistant superintendent, Franklin Pierce School District: Once students have seven unexcused absences within a month or ten in a year, we are required to file a Becca petition. The courts allow us to file a mini petition, which then allows us to hold a community truancy board for that student. We just instituted community truancy boards last spring. The school district, in partnership with Pierce County Juvenile Court, holds the meeting at the district office. If the student then shows improved attendance, we aren’t required to file a full petition, which means the family doesn’t have to appear in court. If attendance doesn’t improve, we’re required to file a full petition, which will require that the family appear before a judge.
2. Is what you’re doing working?
Hasslinger: Our number of hearings are significantly down. I used to have to go to court on a weekly basis, now I end up going two times a month. When I first started this job in September 2005, we were filing 130 to 170 cases a year. And now we’re at 100 to 110.
Jimenez: We look at the percentage of students who have moved on to the courts because they’re still truant. It’s dropped some over the seven years that I’ve worked here and mostly because, along with the court, we have implemented more interventions that the schools can use. I don’t have the exact statistics because our former boss retired, and we’re going through a transition and so we’re trying to access most of the data she had.
Goodpaster: Last year, 14 students and their families went before a community truancy board and all of them improved attendance enough to where we didn’t have to file a full petition. So far this year, we’ve had about 10 students go before the board, and so far we also haven’t had to file full petitions.
3. What are the biggest challenges you face?
Hasslinger: We’ve found that students who have attendance issues in elementary school, usually have them later on. So we’ve started to focus more on helping those elementary school students sooner. If we can do that, then we don’t have to worry about them as high schoolers. Another challenge is how to deal with students who have a variety of mental health and drug abuse issues. And the flip side, we have parents who are young and didn’t necessarily finish school. So we want to build a program that focuses on parent mentoring– I haven’t seen any other places do that.
Jimenez: The biggest challenge we face is apathy from students. And that’s mostly because there’s no relationship building within the schools with the students. So I’ll talk to students about why they don’t want to go to school and they’ll say because it’s overcrowded, because no one cares and it’s easy to just step out. Some students are involved with drugs, too, but most of the students are just disheartened and feel kind of lost within the big schools– especially the ninth graders, that’s the biggest group of students we get coming through the truancy workshops.
Goodpaster: The biggest challenge for us is we don’t have the resources to serve all students that could benefit from the community truancy board. At this time, we’re targeting grades six through ten. We decided, mainly for staffing reasons, to start small, but we have our elementary school counselors wanting to extend community truancy boards to the lower grades to provide earlier intervention.
4. If you have a community truancy board, why did you start one? If you don’t, why don’t you?
Hasslinger: The value is that you come at it from multiple perspectives. It’s not just the school administrator or school counselor trying to deal with the problem– you also have members from the community who represent different races, religions and genders. The big value is the listening piece of it. That student and that parent have an hour of focused time with six to eight people outside of the busy school environment where people can get distracted. They’re saying “here are the roadblocks we’ve had, here are our questions.” The value of being heard is huge because being heard often equates to being cared about. That’s one thing we’ve been practicing as a truancy board: mindful inquiry. That means we don’t just sit there and lecture the student– we spend the majority of that hour just listening to their story, and what you do that really opens up the doors to find out what’s going on.
Jimenez: The year after the Becca Law was passed, we got a two-year grant to create a community truancy board. I wasn’t here when they had a community truancy board. What I know, from my former boss who retired, is that they were too expensive and that we couldn’t get enough people from the community to volunteer on the boards, so after the grant ended, we stopped having the boards. The grant money helped us pay for the board coordinator, for transportation to help families get to the meetings and it also paid for space, materials and some volunteers’ time.
Another challenge we faced with the boards was that the Becca Law didn’t give us enough of a guide about how we should run the boards.
In the last two years, before my former boss retired, she tried to bring the community truancy boards back. She had the money and tried to implement them in four schools, but we ran into the same problem again: not enough community support or volunteers. We’re a big district and the schools are really spread out, so traffic and other factors can make it difficult for people to get to the meetings.
Goodpaster: It’s a wraparound approach. Families see that there’s an effort to support them and that this isn’t a “gotcha,” which may be what it feels like when they’re standing in front of a judge. The tone of the meeting is one of support; we ask how we can partner together to improve the student’s attendance.
Right now, the boards are mainly made up of counselors, school staff, and members of the court. Our next step is to start building our cadre of community members. I think that’s where it becomes truly successful, where you have business leaders and neighbors saying this is important and offering support.
We are waiting to bring in community members because we wanted to have something sustainable first. We didn’t want to bring them into something that we were just figuring out. Now that we’ve scheduled our meetings for the year and we know the program has been successful so far, it’ll be easier to bring them in.
Do you work in a school district that has a program to reduce truancy? Share your strategies with us by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add your responses to this Q&A.