Editor's Note: Because of a reporter's error, the numbers and percentages of chronically absent students were incorrectly reported in a previous version of this story. The story has been changed to reflect this. The Chronicle regrets the errors.
A vital part of the classroom is missing in many Richmond County schools: the student.
Through the state’s Open Records law, The Augusta Chronicle obtained 1.36 million attendance records for students enrolled in the most recently available school years in Richmond, Columbia, Burke and five other school systems in Georgia.
In the 2010-11 school year, 11 to 28 percent of the students at some Richmond County schools were chronically absent – defined by the state Department of Education as missing at least 15 days of school.
The numbers show that Richmond County students miss hundreds of hours of instruction time, do poorly on annual tests and often fail to graduate.
But school and legal officials with whom The Chronicle shared its analysis had no idea how many students are chronically absent, with 15 or more days in excused or unexcused absences, or how many have been truant, students with more than five unexcused absences.
The percent of chronically absent students in 20 of the 56 Richmond County schools is above the state average of 10 percent, and the system’s overall truancy rate is twice as high as the state average.
In 2010-11, 27 percent of the students at T.W. Josey High School missed more than 15 days of school. At the end of the school year, only 46.7 percent of the seniors graduated, according to the state.
Josey Principal Ronald Wiggins said, however, that attendance data don’t tell the whole story of his school, where many students live in poverty and broken homes and have challenges that contribute to unexcused absences.
“If I live with my mom and she’s on drugs and I never see her, who’s going to write my (excuse) note?” he said.
During the same year, 41 percent of the students at Craig Houghton Elementary School were truant, and its test scores for math and science rank at the bottom of all schools in the county. Though a majority of the students passed their tests for social studies and reading, only 36 percent passed the science test. Nearly half failed math.
According to state law, the chief Superior Court judge of every district was required to form an attendance committee in 2005 composed of representatives of the school board, law enforcement, county board of health, Juvenile Court judges and about 10 others. The Richmond County committee formed in 2005, but members have not met twice a year to discuss attendance issues and solutions, as the law requires.
Some individuals who are required to be part of the committee, such as Sheriff Ronnie Strength, were not even aware it existed.
Superintendent Frank Roberson said that school system personnel are doing everything required to combat absenteeism but that they cannot substitute for parents.
At the district level, the truancy protocol requires that a school social worker make a home visit after an elementary or middle school pupil’s fourth unexcused absence and after a high school student’s fifth one.
If the problem persists after social workers intervene, the school system is required to refer a student to the Department of Juvenile Justice. DJJ is then responsible for making referrals to Juvenile Court, although that step is rarely taken, data show.
In the 2010-11 school year, the Richmond County school system referred 199 cases to DJJ, but Juvenile Court Chief Judge Ben Allen’s court saw none of those. The next school year, the district referred 64 cases, and only two were seen in Allen’s court.
For the past four years, Allen, who was not reappointed this month to another four-year term by the Superior Court judges, was in charge of truancy hearings. In a recent interview, Allen said the school system, which has social workers, counselors and psychiatrists,
should handle and resolve truancy cases – not the underfunded court.
“The court putting people in jail doesn’t solve anything when it comes to truancy,” Allen said. “If we put the parents in jail, who’s going to get the child ready for school? If we put the child in jail, then he’s not going to school.”
Although 8,357 students were truant in 2010-11, Allen said truancy is not necessarily a problem in Richmond County. He said numbers reported to the Georgia Department of Education are probably inflated because students are given one unexcused absence when they accumulate 10 tardies.
Attendance isn’t equal to quality education, he said. Allen told a story of a high school senior who graduated at the top of her class after missing 20 to 40 days of school.
“She was just bored,” Allen said.
The hard data show she was an exception, however.
According to The Chronicle’s analysis, 53.3 percent of the seniors at Josey failed to graduate in 2010-11. Nearly 20 percent of the students at Josey missed a month or more of classes
What’s happening at Josey is emblematic of a problem throughout the school system. For instance, at Butler High School in 2010-11, 28 percent of students missed 15 or more days. At the end of the year, 52.7 percent of the senior class failed to graduate.
By comparison, fewer than 3 percent of students at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School and fewer than 1 percent at A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet High School missed that much school during the same year. At graduation, every senior could walk across the stage and claim a diploma.
That’s the answer – magnet schools, said Richmond County Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig.
“We’ve known the key to success in education in Augusta for 30 years,” Craig said. “We know it works, so why can’t we do it … instead of insisting on one-size-fits-all and then scratching our heads over and over again when it fails.”
Attendance at the magnet schools is nearly perfect because the students are empowered, engaged and excited about going to school, Craig said. Instead of four magnet schools and 52 traditional ones, Craig said, the district should reverse that number.
It won’t change without real leadership in the school system’s positions of power, Craig said.
The Richmond County school leadership believes the attendance problem lies at the feet of parents and, secondarily, the community.
“This is another area where the school system is expected to take over the role as a parent,” said Richmond County Board of Education President Alex Howard. “We can’t police parents all the time on something like this. … The parents have to step up and get involved.”
Roberson said the schools are doing their part to get kids in class.
“The real key to this issue is at the parental level in terms of resolving it,” Roberson said. “One thousand years ago, when I was a boy, that was in place – aunts, uncles and grandparents and community people were very much engaged in the family, especially where there were young children. We stopped talking about that, and we stopped doing that.”
In Richmond County, Howard and board member Frank Dolan said they were unaware of the truancy problem but said parents, not the school system, must intervene.
“Our job is to teach kids, not raise them,” Howard said. “We can offer the services, the guidance, but if they’re not coming to school, what can we do?”
Dolan said he believes government is to blame, that poor people are encouraged through welfare to have more children they won’t take care of, and in turn, not send to school. Punitive recourse would be a wake-up call to most parents of truant kids, he said.
“Put them in jail for the weekend and put the kid in YDC (Youth Detention Center),” Dolan suggested.
Juvenile Court Judges Doug Flanagan and Willie Saunders, who conducted truancy hearings in the year before Allen took over the responsibility, said they have put parents in jail when all else failed, but it’s rare.
Saunders said truancy hearings serve more as an intervention and wake-up call to parents because truancy is usually a symptom of a bigger problem, such as illness or a need for clothes, food or counseling.
Allen said courts should intervene only when the school system’s resources are exhausted, but Linda Heggs, the district’s lead social worker, said her office is stretched thin with eight social workers for more than 31,000 students at 56 schools.
Before social workers are called in, teachers are responsible for tracking down absent students, according to the attendance protocol.
Teachers make phone calls and send letters home after the second and third absences, but many parents don’t respond, said Lynn Haynes, a fifth-grade teacher at Garrett Elementary School, where last year nearly a third of the students missed the equivalent of four weeks of school.
“It costs time because you have to go back and try to catch them up in a class that’s already full,” Haynes said. “There’s no time to do, but you have to make the time.
“You do what you can to get the students to want to go to school and put pressure on the parents to get them there. Once you do that, you know what happens? They move.”
The high number of transient families in Richmond County contributes to absenteeism, school and Juvenile Court officials said. Some students’ permanent records show that they have attended eight to 10 schools before they hit the fifth grade, Haynes said.
Acknowledging the poor attendance rates, Garrett Elementary is trying something new to combat absenteeism. This month it kicked off an incentive program to reward students with perfect attendance with pizza or other treats.
“We are aware of the fact we’re dealing with parents that are not sending their kids to school for whatever reason. (But) we have found when you reward kids for doing the right thing, they are going to put the pressure on their parents,” Haynes said.
Garrett Elementary Principal Paula Kaminski shares the frustration of dealing with parents with a blasé attitude about school.
“I’ve got people breezing in when they’re ready. If the weather’s bad, they don’t come in on time, or they just don’t show up,” she said.
Heggs said that before referring students to DJJ, her office works to find out what is causing truancy. Social workers visit the home and offer the services of local agencies if a family needs clothes or counseling.
About half of those students make a turnaround, but in the 2010-11 school year 4,178 went on to collect have 10 or more unexcused absences after social worker intervention The state Department of Education lacks the authority to make any local school district do more than what state laws requires: the establishment of a truancy protocol and notices sent to parents after five unexcused absences.
There is no state law that sets a limit on how many days a student can miss before punitive consequences are enforced against student or parent. The state does have a law that says children younger than 16 must attend school. Parents who fail to educate their children can be prosecuted, but if the only court with authority over parents and their children – Juvenile Court – ignores its duty, there are absolutely no consequences.
“There’s obviously a problem if we’ve got 8,000 (students) not going to school and we’ve got the graduation rates we’ve got in Richmond County,” said Superior Court Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet. “The numbers shouldn’t be falling in an empty barrel somewhere. There should be a committee out there to address them. I would hope the juvenile judges would address this.”
The Augusta Judicial Circuit’s three juvenile court judges met with Roberson and other school officials Thursday to discuss solutions to the truancy crisis.
According to a news release, the judges plan to hear “as many truancy cases as necessary to effectively enforce truancy laws.” They also plan to make presentations to students about absenteeism and drugs as well as talk with school social workers and counselors about how to blend school efforts with the court.