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Initiative targets truancy in Penn Hills

Tony LaRussa
| Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010

The Penn Hills School District is launching an initiative this year to help some of the 40 percent of district students with truancy problems.

The effort will try to fix the problem of habitual tardiness, which affects about 40 percent of the district's 4,500 students.

"We already have a process that's required by the state for dealing with truants, but we'd like to try to help some of these students before it gets to the point where we are bringing them before the local district judge," said John Plazarin, the district's director of child accounting.

The current process calls for a letter to be sent home to the parents of students with three unexcused absences, followed by a letter after the fourth unexcused absence.

The next time a student misses school without a valid excuse, a letter is sent informing the family it will have to participate in a truancy elimination plan or face criminal charges.

"We want the district's guidance counselors to be involved much earlier in the process, certainly before it gets to the point of going to the magistrate, to try to deal with some of the reasons why students are missing school and are coming in late," Plazarin said.

Last school year, 78 criminal citations were issued to the parents of students who were habitually late. While the prospects of being fined caused some students to improve their attendance, others were not deterred.

Plazarin noted that at some of the court proceedings, parents of truant children have the fines added to what they already owe for criminal offenses.

"We have to recognize that tacking on another fine just isn't going to mean much to some people," he said. "When we walk out of the magistrate's office with a guilty plea, we've won the battle. But we've lost the war if these kids still aren't passing their tests and graduating."

The program will be introduced in the middle and high schools this year with plans to extend it to the elementary grades for the 2011-12 school year, Plazarin said.

The work of dealing with truants will include a guidance counselor from each grade, in addition to the district's child accounting office staff.

Habitual tardiness is not covered under the state's truancy guidelines. The district will consider being tardy eight times without a valid excuse the equivalent of being absent once without an excuse.

"Right now, if a student is constantly late and misses a particular class, there's no real mechanism for them to make up the work, so they are likely to fail the course," Plazarin said. "Now, we'll require them to attend an academic tutoring program after school or on Saturdays and work on addressing the reasons for their tardiness."

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