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School officials address truancy with range of methods

JONESBORO — Truancy comes in many different shades.

Gary Townsend is principal at Charles Drew High School. He said there are many reasons students frequently miss school — illness, disaffection and depression are among them.

“Some of our kids are so far behind that they just feel lost,” said Townsend. “They feel somewhat inferior in the classroom and they don’t want to be looked down upon like that. For others, it’s not as challenging and they go other places.”

Drew High students attend class fairly regularly, according to data from Clayton County Public Schools. The school’s 80 percent absentee rate in 2011-12 was notably lower than other high schools in the district that reported rates at 87 percent or above that year.

Townsend credited the focus on attendance that began when it opened August 2009.

He said new high schools that lacked a body of standardized testing were evaluated based on their attendance rates to help determine whether those they met Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

“We couldn’t have more than 15 percent of our students absent 10 or more days,” he said. “[Also,] the only way our students can learn is that they have to be here. Our kids understand the importance of being in school.”

Townsend said he believes the “new school” culture has played a role in getting students and parents to buy into their education.

Tamera Foley is the district’s executive director of teaching and learning. She said the district’s goal is to have the lowest attendance rate possible on any given day to conform to the state’s new College and Career Readiness Performance Index curriculum standards.

She said schools have attendance committees that meet weekly. It comprises a registrar, attendance secretary, counselor, social worker and psychologist.

The committee looks at individual students with five or more days of unexcused absences over the school year and provides steps to correct the absenteeism problem.

“If they’re not in school, they’re not learning,” said Foley.

She said parents or guardians receive a letter after three days of excused absences and they are invited to meet during the school day with a member of the committee to discuss the absences.

“I think you have to talk to students and talk about the importance of school attendance,” she said. “We want all of our students to be valuable citizens in our community.”

Foley said there are a range of reasons for truancy. For example, a parent may have a severe medical condition and is unable to get their child to school. However, some parents are unaware their children may be skipping school.

That is where law enforcement comes in with its eye out to identify potential skippers.

The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office has indicated it has a truancy unit. However, the Clayton News Daily reached out to Sheriff Victor Hill for information about the unit and how it operates and did not receive a response.

Foley said police communicate their findings to the superintendent.

“It takes everybody in the community to support the efforts of identifying truant students when they see them,” she said. “It’s a community effort, not just a district effort.”

Foley said there are multiple intervention levels.

Students may be assigned to Saturday School with their parents, where they speak with a officials about the truancy concerns and how to fix them. The intervention is about three hours.

The truancy response could escalate up to possible fines or jail time for the parent, said Foley, adding she has not seen the measures taken in Clayton County.

She said youth may also be referred to Juvenile Court.

Clayton County’s System of Care assesses chronically disruptive students referred from the district. They are called CHINS, or Children in Need of Services, under the new juvenile code.

Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steve Teske said the program has helped reduce the number of delinquency complaint filings to below 60 percent since 2004.

He said the program uses a graduated response system beginning with the least restrictive and cooperative approach.

Parents go before a multi-disciplinary panel consisting of representatives from mental health and the Department of Family and Children services, a school counselor, a school social worker and community clinical providers to be assessed.

The panel develops a treatment plan that may include wrap-around services and family and individual counseling.

Teske said parents who do not cooperate are referred to the Juvenile Court on a petition alleging educational neglect for the purpose to secure a court order to cooperate or be punished. He said the petitions are few and far between because most parents cooperate.

“Rarely does it become necessary to punish a parent with jail,” he said. “Give parents an opportunity to show they want and need help. In fact, most do cooperate, which proves the point that we should never assume the worse.”