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Districts take steps to combat truancy problems

| Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Like a canary in a coal mine, an empty desk in a school classroom can be a sign of problems to come.

In Pennsylvania, students who have six or more days of unexcused absences are considered habitually truant. It's an early warning sign for children, especially if it happens year-after-year, says Dirk Matson, director of human services for Westmoreland County.

“It just wreaks havoc on people's lives if they don't get a solid education,” said Matson, who is leading a pilot program with seven school districts in Westmoreland to combat truancy.

“It can lead to a lack of a job or low-paying jobs later in life,” he said. “There's a significant tie to criminal activity down the road. A significant amount of kids truant in their early lives end up being in jail or being on probation. It has a lot of consequences.”

Nearly 21,000 Western Pennsylvania students habitually missed school last year, logging double-digit truancy rates for almost a third of school districts in nine counties.

The state calculates truancy annually for individual schools by dividing the total number of its truants by the school's enrollment as of Oct. 1, and for districts by dividing the total number of truants from all of its schools by the district's enrollment.

Statewide, truancy rates were between about 7 and 8 percent from the 2005-06 school year through 2012-13, the most recent year for which data was available.

In the Alle-Kiski Valley area, three districts — Highlands, New Kensington-Arnold and Plum — had reported truancy higher than the statewide rate, sometimes more than double. New Kensington-Arnold and Plum were higher than the statewide figure for the most recent three consecutive school years; Highlands was higher for four straight years.

Highlands has been doing many things to decrease truancy, including having a specially trained employee to handle such cases, said Karen King, the district's director of pupil services.

Efforts have gone as far as calling students in the morning to wake them up and buying them alarm clocks, King said.

There's hope that the availability this year of free breakfast and lunch for all students will help draw kids to school.

The district “is making extra efforts to pull students back to school by using incentives, offering high-interest classes and educational opportunities, linking education to careers and providing individualized attention from staff mentors,” King said.

Highlands begins talking about the importance of attendance as early as kindergarten, and studies have found that matters.

A 2009-10 study in Pittsburgh Public Schools found that children who were present on the first day of kindergarten on average missed nine days of school, while children who were absent missed on average 18 days.

One study found that only 17 percent of children who miss 10 percent of school days in both kindergarten and first grade read at grade level by the end of third grade.

“If they're not here, they can't learn. You have to be here to learn,” King said. “The benefit of coming to school is beyond learning academics. It's developing the appropriate social skills and accountability to get a job.”

Plum Superintendent Tim Glasspool refused to discuss his district's truancy rates, but in an email said the district made changes over the summer of 2013 to address truancy. They included starting an automatic calling system for absent students and developing a reference sheet for parents detailing the district's attendance policy.

“By continuing to create a welcoming and engaging learning environment, our student attendance continues to remain high,” Glasspool said in the email. “Our students come to school because they know we have teachers who care about their well-being.”

Stats questioned

While New Kensington-Arnold has the highest reported truancy rates, Superintendent John Pallone believes they are inflated because of the district's strict compliance with its own policy requiring excuses within three days of an absence.

Pallone said his district's truancy rate is likely about 10 percent, about half of what state reports show.

“We do have an attendance problem, there's no doubt,” Pallone said. “That's a societal issue.

“We have parents who don't get up with their kids and don't bring their kids to school or get them on the bus,” he said. “We aggressively go after those parents and try to explain the importance.”

Franklin Regional Superintendent Jamie Piraino has a problem with his district's reported truancy rates as well. He said there's “no way” the district had a zero percent truancy rate for the most recent four straight years, as the reports show.

Piraino, who started at Franklin Regional in spring 2013, could not say how or why the district reported no truancy. He said administrators are working on improving the tracking and handling of truant students.

“Every school system has some level of issue with truancy,” Piraino said.

Mike Kozup, director of the state's Office for Safe Schools, said he'll question superintendents of districts that report zero rates of habitual truancy.

“Their word when they sign off on that is what we accept,” Kozup said.

Leechburg Area reported zero habitual truancy for the most recent three consecutive years. Superintendent Ian Magness said it's accurate because of the district's efforts to help students before they get to six unlawful absences.

“One of the blessings of a small school district is we can keep on individual students,” he said.

Program aims to help

Piraino wants to get Franklin Regional into the pilot program Matson is heading, in which a contingent of county, court, medical and school officials participate.

The program's long-term goal is to reduce truancy by 25 percent by 2019, Matson said.

There is a wide variety of reasons why kids miss school, Matson said. Among younger children, the issue usually involves the parents; among older students, it's the students themselves.

Figuring out what the reasons are and coming up with a plan to address them — rather than taking children and their parents before a judge — has to be part of solving the problem, Matson said.

“You have to get to the root of the problem,” he said. “Being punitive as a first step is the worst thing you can do. You need to understand the problem and deal with it.”

Under the program, letters are sent home on students' third unexcused absence, and a meeting is scheduled after the fourth. With five unexcused absences, a district judge and the Westmore­land County Children's Bureau become involved.

“We think by having that early intervention and getting the family involved, that's going to help resolve a lot of issues pretty early,” Matson said.

Kiski Area is among the school districts participating in the pilot, beginning in the 2013-14 school year.

Michael Cardamone, assistant principal of Kiski's intermediate school, is a member of the pilot program's committee. He said a goal is to design a unified, county-wide system of what truancy is and how it's handled.

“We've noticed it has made an impact here. Kids aren't missing as much school,” he said. “We're increasing communication with families and having families come in for truancy elimination plans.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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