BY MIKE JAMES
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
RUSSELL Among the 13,000 public school students in Boyd and Greenup counties last year, more than 2,200 missed enough school to be identified as chronically absent, according to numbers provided by a school attendance official.
Percentage-wise, that comes to 17 percent of students in the two counties who missed more than 10 percent of school days, according to Russell Independent Schools director of pupil personnel Anthony Thompson.
The consequences of absenteeism at that level are significant, both to students and their schools, Thompson said.
Schools lose out on state funding, which is based on the number of students in school each day. An even more serious problem, however, is the loss of instructional time — when students aren’t in class, they aren’t learning, Thompson said. Further, teachers have to spend time helping absent students catch up when they do return to school, and that takes time they need to keep their classes on target.
But not every chronically absent student is like Ferris Bueller, skipping out with friends for fun and hijinks. Rather, some have health issues; some suffer from anxiety, some from fear of bullying.
New federal and state guidelines require schools to work with families of children who miss more than 10 percent of days enrolled — the definition of chronic absenteeism — to find ways to improve attendance.
Chronic absenteeism includes both excused and unexcused absences and suspensions.
That is why attendance officials like Thompson are taking a different approach to their jobs than the traditional enforcement-based truant officer role.
Rather than tracking down students, they contact families to identify problems. They seek to establish non-confrontational relationships with parents.
That is a challenge, Thompson said. “The problem I am having is changing the mindset that we are just out to hold people accountable. It’s hard for people not to see us as accusing them.
“We want people to understand we want to remove barriers to learning. We want them to see we might be able to do something simple to keep kids in school.”
The procedure in Russell is to identify chronically absent students after the first 30 days and then send a letter to parents. The letters go out once a month to parents of each child who misses more than 10 percent of days.
The letters include a request to speak to parents. Some parents call and are immediately cooperative. Thompson also takes time each day to stop by the homes of any absent child who is on the chronic absenteeism list. His goal for the visit is to offer help with underlying issues.
Administrators, counselors and family resource coordinators work with parents and students to offer help.
For instance, some children suffer from severe anxiety, either academic or social.
“Kids need to know that if they have problems at school, they can talk with an adult without embarrassment,” he said. One mechanism is to provide vulnerable children with a signal, which could be as simple as a thumbs-up to the teacher, that the pressure of anxiety is closing in.
The teacher could then excuse the student to go to a counselor or the office until the anxiety subsides.
“One of the first things we have to do is to legitimize their struggle and let them know we are here to help,” he said.
Chronically absent children often want to be at school, but their troubles keep them away, said Terri McConda, a Russell counselor. “They want to be here, but certain things come up that they have trouble controlling that make it hard for them to be here,” she said.
Some children report getting up in the morning dreading school, or “say things like they want to crawl out of their skin,” she said.
“We try to reassure them we are here to help them, not to judge them or make assumptions about their condition or their behavior.”
Counselors also reassure children the counseling office is a refuge where they can come for a while and then return to class.
“We want them to return to class because if they stay out a couple of days, it makes it harder to reintegrate. It creates more anxiety and compounds the issue,” she said.
Other districts are taking a similar approach. Boyd County has created attendance teams at each elementary, pupil personnel director Marci Prater said. The teams are made up of the principal, attendance clerk, counselor, family resource coordinator, a teacher and Prater.
The teams meet regularly and discuss each student on the chronic absenteeism list and look for ways counselors and family resource centers can assist. “We look at the whole child and their needs, and try to meet those needs,” Prater said.
Targeting younger children is based on the premise that if impressed with the importance of attendance, they will be more likely to keep it up.
Data isn’t yet in on chronically absent students in Boyd this year, but the district’s attendance in general has gone up about 2.5 percent since last year, she said.
In Russell, after two-and-a-half years of the new approach, there were about 100 fewer students on the list last year than the previous year, and about 1,500 fewer absences among children on the list, according to Thompson. Family cooperation is the chief reason, he said.
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