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Greensburg Salem tightens truancy rules

| Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 8:44 p.m.

Greensburg Salem officials have turned to a new pilot program to try to curb truancy.

The district has joined with other local districts in the effort, which involves Westmoreland County and court officials.

The program has prevention — rather than punishment — as its primary goal, organizers said.

Superintendent Eileen Amato told school directors during a meeting this month that missed school has a dramatic effect on student achievement.

“Stopping truancy makes a difference,” she said.

A student who frequently misses classes earns less in a lifetime than other students and is more likely to be jailed, according to Communities in Schools of Pennsylvania.

A contingent of county, court and school officials met for several months to put together the pilot program.

Physicians also can be involved in the process.

The state Education Department identifies truancy as any unexcused absence from school.

Greensburg Salem's high and middle schools are involved in the pilot program.

A student's number of unexcused, or “illegal,” absences triggers different responses and the type of agency that would become involved in prevention efforts, said Ken Bissell, district coordinator of secondary education.

Through the program, school officials are attempting to address missed school days more quickly than in the past, he said.

“The difference is the immediacy of it,” he said.

On the third unexcused absence, the district's procedure calls for a letter to go to the parent or guardian and inform them of the missed number of school days and the need to report absences in the appropriate manner.

The fourth unexcused absence leads to a “truancy elimination plan” meeting, Bissell said.

District administrators and counselors will meet with the student and parent or guardian and determine why the student doesn't attend classes and how that can be corrected, he explained.

Making parents aware of the lifetime consequences their children can suffer from missing school often helps curb truancy, Bissell said.

“Sometimes, the parents need a little more support,” he said. “We find, when they do get involved, a lot of the time it resolves the problem.”

With five unexcused absences, a district judge and the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau will become involved with the student and family, Bissell said.

“It's more formalized than it was before,” he added of the process.

Shara Saveikis, children's bureau administrator, said her agency will do a further investigation into the reasons for the truancy.

“Our goal and interest is to find the root cause and a solution,” she said.

If the problem persists, the child may be referred to county court, Saveikis said.

The pilot program brings uniformity to the process, although there is some choice for school officials about when to involve various agencies, she said.

Last school year, 33 students were processed by Greensburg Salem as truant, district officials said.

Deans of students will keep track of attendance of the 640 students in the middle school and 1,000 pupils in the high school, Bissell said.

The deans will make home visits.

Dirk Matson, who spearheaded the county effort, couldn't be reached for comment.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or bstiles@tribweb.com.