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Habitual truancy plagues Western Pa. schools

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Students arrive Friday March 21, 2014 at Wilkinsburg High School just after 8 am.

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

“When I was growing up, skipping school might be a one-time thing,” said Oliver Dent, 62, of Duquesne. “Now it's poverty. It's a lack of interest. It's the climate of the community they live in. Some kids can get through and endure the hardships. Others need help; they can't see the light on their own.”

Chronic absenteeism can begin with a single missed day, experts say, and snowball into mounds of missed homework assignments, forgotten projects and unexpected exams.

Pennsylvania defines truancy as three or more unexcused absences in a school year.

Regional educators, judges, social workers and volunteers want to connect families with available resources before those hardships begin and students lock into a trajectory that leads to failing grades and dropping out.

Dent and a team of 30 volunteers from Covenant Church of Pittsburgh in Wilkinsburg approached Wilkinsburg School District officials in September about rampant truancy among neighborhood kids.

Wilkinsburg High School had the highest truancy rate in the region last year at 76.21 percent, an almost 20 percentage point increase from 2011-12.

Wilkinsburg School Board President Edward J. Donovan said the board plans to immediately address truancy with a substitute superintendent, Donna Micheaux, who starts Monday. The board on Friday voted to terminate Superintendent Lee McFerren, citing a need to “take us in the direction that we know we need to go.” McFerren is on administrative leave pending a June 26 termination date. Micheaux is executive director for organizational leadership at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Donovan said the board will focus on issues including staff development, test scores and promoting incentives for students to stay in class.

“You work to make what's going on in those classrooms so good that the kids don't want to play hooky,” Donovan said.

The state calculates truancy annually for 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.

Districtwide, nearly half of Wilkinsburg's students logged at least three or more unexcused absences, according to Safe Schools reports filed with the state.

“The situation was bad before I got here, but it has been exacerbated by indecision,” said McFerren during an interview before he was fired.

McFerren, who joined the economically distressed district in July, said truancy citations filled out by Wilkinsburg administrators weren't served to magistrates for more than a year. Attempts to reach him Saturday were not successful.

When Raemoni King, 13, missed two days after the holidays for the death of his mother, King's father, also named Raemoni, wrote the middle school an appropriate excuse. A school secretary didn't enter the slips into her computer, King said. A few days later, a county social worker pulled his son out of class and insisted she see his home immediately to make sure he was OK.

“I understand they're trying to look out for the kids, but that was too much,” King said. “No one from the school even called me. My son is a good student.”

Athena Petrolias, director of the alternative education program at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, and her three-person team serves about 300 families a year — far fewer than the number of families in need regionally, she said.

“Right now, because the entire region is so focused on truancy, you're seeing more collaborative ways to deal with it,” she said. “After budget cuts eliminated school social workers and trimmed personnel, you need that outside support through foundations and the court system to make any headway.”

Superintendent David Wytiaz of Aliquippa School District called Beaver County's truancy intervention program a godsend for his district, long-plagued by financial shortfalls.

Since joining the co-op three years ago, its truancy rate — still among the region's highest — has fallen from 34.4 percent to 29.5 percent despite a certified truancy officer who works part-time.

“It's poverty,” Wytiaz said. “Ninety percent of my students are considered economically disadvantaged, many in tough situations. Older family members are taking care of young children. Someone is incarcerated or won't wake up. A car won't start. These kids want to be in school, so we do what we can to get them here.”

Petrolias said chronic absenteeism could stem from myriad issues — illness, school phobia, bullying, incarceration of a parent, domestic violence, poverty, transportation woes or mental health issues. Often, she said, parents don't realize their son or daughter has missed as much class time as they have.

“It could be anything and the kitchen sink,” she said. “Every family is different.”

There's a pattern to missing school, said Greensburg Salem Superintendent Eileen Amato.

“When it feels easy, students get farther and farther behind, and then they don't want to be here to do all the makeup work,” she said. “We want to take care of whatever is going on before the number of absent days gets too big.”

Greensburg Salem schools joined a countywide pilot program helmed by Dirk Matson, Westmoreland County's director of human services, in which a contingent of county, court, medical and school officials participate.

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.

Greensburg Salem's rate is among the lowest in nine counties at just above 1 percent.

Jeannette City School District officials instituted similar sanctions two years ago that require students to attend Saturday sessions to make up for any hours missed during the week. For the 2013-14 school year, officials say the high school's daily absences have dropped from an average of 10.8 percent to 5.4 percent. The district reported a truancy rate of 11.3 percent last year.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or

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