Alle-Kiski schools strive to keep kids in class
When it comes to truancy, even partial successes are celebrated.
“We don't expect to turn kids completely around, but to know someone is thinking more of themselves than they did the day before is a positive thing,” said Brian Kluchurosky, director of Youth Advocate Program's truancy prevention program in Allegheny County. “We start to create a plan to achieve something like getting a job or a work permit. They have to believe in themselves and become resilient.”
Local school officials say they generally deal with relatively few habitually truant students throughout the year, but they invest significant time and resources to help those students in whom truancy is “a deep-rooted problem.”
Getting a child back to regular attendance sometimes involves working one-on-one with a parent, home visits from school officials, referring the family to social services organizations and sometimes contacting the county children, youth and families office.
Filing truancy charges with the district magistrate is a last resort.
“I think the thing that we're proud of is that we do try to work with the parents,” said David Campos, assistant principal at Deer Lakes High School. “We're not out to just punish people.”
The obstacle keeping a child out of school may be a problem at home or that he or she doesn't want to face a school bully.
Sometimes a struggling student will avoid classes because he or she don't understand the material. Or it may be the seemingly insurmountable task of recovering credits lost due to absenteeism that discourages teens from coming to school regularly.
“Truancy has been an increasing problem across the country,” said Chad Roland, principal at Kiski Area High School. “I certainly wouldn't deny we have a truancy issue (at Kiski). We've been able to improve attendance … but it's a deep-rooted problem with one or two students a year.”
The Army and the Ad Council, a nonprofit that produces public service ads, recently launched a campaign to combat truancy. The ad campaign targets parents of fifth- through eighth-graders in an effort to improve attendance before the students enter high school.
Pennsylvania schools are required to report the number of truant students to the state each year.
But because attendance polices vary widely among districts, it's difficult to accurately compare truancy rates.
The most recent state data available is from the 2011-12 school year. Statewide, the truancy rate was about 8 percent.
20 percent truancy
Among districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley, New Kensington-Arnold had the highest truancy rate, at 20 percent, or about 450 students.
Highlands and Plum school districts each had a truancy rate of about 14 percent last year, with about 375 students labeled truant in Highlands and 600 in Plum, which has double the enrollment of Highlands.
“Truancy, while it's on our radar, it's probably the quietest bleep we have,” said New Kensington-Arnold Superintendent John Pallone. “I think we have a good internal policy. The attendance has improved over the last four or five years.”
In New Kensington-Arnold and Highlands school districts, a letter is sent home to parents after three unexcused absences and a student with more than five unexcused absences in a nine-week grading period is considered truant.
Many times, a parent is either unaware their child missed school or forgot to write an excuse and the matter is correctly quickly, school officials said.
Schools bring in help
For more difficult cases, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc., one of the largest nonprofit youth and family support agencies in the United States, works with caseworkers in the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families when a student's family is referred because of chronic absenteeism.
Through building a relationship with a student, YAP staffers eventually get to the root of the problem — a key to ending truant behavior, Kluchurosky said.
“You can come to understand down the line that this kid can't read or feels so far behind literacy-wise that they can't follow the material,” he said. “And it's embarrassing for them.”
Youth Advocate Programs will go so far as to send someone each morning to get a student out of bed and off to school and will work with parents to set up a schedule and routine.
Karen King, director of pupil services in the Highlands School District, said one option in their district is for students to attend school via the Internet through the Highlands Virtual Academy.
“We have so many options for them to stay in school, it doesn't make sense to me that they don't come,” King said. “But some of them aren't invested in getting an education and some of them have parents who aren't invested, either.”
The final step: Charges
If all else fails, a district can file truancy charges with the district magistrate.
“And that certainly gets the family's attention,” said Pallone.
Groups like the National Center for School Engagement offer resources for school officials dealing with truant students. And the issue has been a topic of discussion among principals at their association meetings, said Roland, Kiski High principal.
“Sometimes it feels like we're spinning our wheels,” he said. “Underneath of it, there's a reason. That's what we need to tackle.
“And then we can prevent that from being the obstacle.”
Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or firstname.lastname@example.org.