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New partnership aims to combat school absenteeism in Allegheny County

| Monday, Sept. 5, 2016, 10:36 p.m.

Samantha Murphy can rattle off tales about all the truant kids her team has come across over the years.

There was the 15-year-old heroin addict. There was the girl who skipped her morning classes because she struggled so much in math. There was the boy whose grandmother didn't have a car and couldn't get him there during the winter months.

Murphy, the resource services manager and education liaison for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said there are any number of reasons a student might miss school. She hopes a new partnership between her office, the juvenile probation department, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and school districts can help find a solution for them.

“A lot of it is helping people identify that root cause and offering some sort of support for resolving it if we can,” Murphy said.

The new school year marks the launch of the county-wide “Focus on Attendance” initiative, which county officials say is the result of years of study and collaboration aimed at addressing truancy in Allegheny County. Almost 12,000 students in 2014-15 were truant — meaning they had more than three unexcused absences at school. That number has remained about the same for the past three years, state data show.

Previously, schools would notify the AIU when a student was truant, and in turn the AIU would notify the county department of Children, Youth and Families, said Athena Petrolias, the AIU's director of alternative education programs.

“It did not utilize all the resources,” Petrolias said of the AIU's former Truancy Prevention program. “This broadens it.”

Under the program, all schools and districts will use the same referral form when reporting truant students, Murphy said. The referrals will go to a joint team of staff from the AIU and DHS — all based in the AIU's building in Homestead — who will be able to communicate with each other and the magistrate judges who handle the legal cases to best determine what can be done for the students. Those resources could include things like housing assistance or mental health and drug treatment.

CYF, which has been bombarded with new cases during the past two years as a result of the changes made to abuse reporting laws after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, will be called when necessary, Petrolias said. The goal is to refer truancy cases to the department or agency that can be most helpful.

“We can do a lot better if we just communicate with each other,” Murphy said.

“Focus on Attendance” began as a pilot program in 2012-13 in Pittsburgh Manchester and Pittsburgh King on the North Side. A DHS staff member was on-site to work with the social workers and counselors in place at the schools.

Truancy went down at both schools, especially at King, Pittsburgh Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Dara Ware Allen said. State data show that the truancy rate at King dropped from 16 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2015.

The social workers and counselors who act as point-people for truancy issues at each school are excited that the program is expanding across the county, Allen said.

“It's going to help,” she said. “And the messaging is improving. People are starting to realize there are more resources out there to help them.”

Students who miss 10 percent or more of school each year are more likely to be suspended and more likely to perform poorly academically, according to Attendance Works, a national group that studies attendance rates and how absenteeism affects student achievement at all grade levels. In a report released Tuesday, the organization found that 6.5 million students across the country missed three or more weeks of school per year. More than half of those students are from just 4 percent of school districts nationwide, with Pittsburgh among them.

Missing two days of school per month — whether those absences are excused or not — pushes students off the track to academic success, said Hedy Chang, one of the report's authors.

“All the best instruction in classrooms just doesn't make a difference if kids aren't there to benefit from it,” she said.

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7886 or

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