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Some Georgia school districts successfully combat truancy

Aggressive efforts pay off for similar school system

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While Richmond County continues to see dismal attendance at many schools in addition to low test scores and graduation rates, other school districts in Georgia are using proactive approaches to get students to class.

Chatham and Richmond counties have similar demographics when it comes to children living in poverty and single-parent homes – both impediments to steady school attendance, experts say. Chatham County made a huge turnaround in truancy and absenteeism in the 2010-11 school year by taking an aggressive approach.

Chatham began holding truancy sweeps by a joint force of school resource officers, social workers, police and juvenile court officials. Every other month, the team knocks on doors at homes where truant students live.

Quentina Miller-Fields, Chatham’s director of student affairs, credited the sweeps for a drop in the truancy rate from 20 percent in 2009-10 to 1 percent the next year.

Like Richmond County’s school system, Chatham’s protocol includes phone calls and letters to parents of truant students, but Chatham goes further. Attendance meetings are held twice a month at every school. Potentially wayward students are identified and targeted for more attention.

“We know if all students are not in school, we know they can’t get the education they need,” Miller-Fields said. “We’re looking at the end goal, and that’s graduation.”

Other communities in the country where absenteeism was attacked aggressively found another benefit – lower crime rates.

Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, said 65 percent to 90 percent of daytime burglaries are caused by truant students. In many major cities, cracking down on absenteeism directly results in a drop in crime, he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice, daytime crime dropped 68 percent in Minneapolis after police began citing truant students. In Rohnert Park, Calif., the burglary rate dropped 75 percent.

In Atlantic County, N.J., 84 percent of the truant students who went through an intense truancy program attended school regularly.

STUDIES SHOW THAT cutting absenteeism leads to increased graduation rates and improved test scores. In 2011, the Georgia Department of Education released a study linking the significance of attendance to achievement. Researchers found that only 52.3 percent of eighth-grade students who missed 11 to 14 days – excused or unexcused absences – graduated four years later, compared with 78.7 percent who graduated after missing no days in the eighth grade.

By increasing student attendance just 3 percent – five days over a year’s time – 10,000 more students would have passed their reading tests and more than 30,000 extra students would have sailed through the math exams, according to the state.

“We can use this information to change the conversation, especially as it relates to the excused vs. unexcused absences,” said state superintendent John Barge in 2011. “The data is clear that excused and unexcused absences have the same negative impact.”

IN COLUMBIA COUNTY, which has a much lower absenteeism rate than Richmond County but also a smaller school population and higher median household income, a team works to ensure that students go to school. If they don’t, the team is ready to find out why and eliminate the barriers between child and school, said Doug Flanagan, who serves as the juvenile court judge in Columbia County.

In the 2010-11 school year, only 11 percent of Columbia County students were truant, compared with 22 percent of Richmond County students.

“I like to see truancy cases because I see that as an early warning sign that something is wrong at home,” Flanagan said. “Parents need to understand schools won’t put up with it.”

The school system solves most attendance problems on its own, but if officials can’t get through to a student or parents, the protocol is to call in the sheriff’s office, which sends an officer to the home. If the attendance problem persists, the student is referred to the juvenile court.

With younger children, the parents are before the judge’s bench answering questions, Flanagan said. Sometimes it is a financial issue, or a mental or physical health issue that is overwhelming a parent. If a parent is being lazy or is not up to the task of raising children, the consequence can be jail or a change in custody – rare, but still options, Flanagan said.

With older students, Flanagan said, he first asks why a student does not want to go to school. It can be bullying, boredom, an inability to keep up in class or something at home, he said.

Poverty also can affect attendance. In Richmond County, 36.5 percent of children are living in poverty and 55 percent live in single-parent homes, a major contributor to truancy. Those numbers are triple and double the rates of Columbia County, but Richmond County also has a wide range of social organizations ready and able to help if they were tasked, Flanagan said.

STEPHENS, of the National School Safety Center, said it takes the involvement of several school and law enforcement agencies to solve truancy. Schools must work closely with families to make school feel like a safe, welcoming place, especially early in life.

“When a youngster is first truant, you deal with it early on,” Stephens said. “If you let this stuff ride, it tends to escalate and get worse and worse.”

Stephens said the courts must be involved to provide consequences and resources for families. A judge often can address a deep-rooted issue, such as a family’s need for clothes, counseling or help with transportation.

“You don’t necessarily have to incarcerate the parents,” Stephens said. “The judge can compel the parents to become engaged in some type of counseling or other interventions that will support their child.”

Augusta Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders said because truancy is a symptom of a larger issue, such as poverty or neglect, it will take a task force of community agencies to provide enough resources to eradicate the problem.

“If the community truly decides it’s not acceptable, then people won’t stand for it,” he said. “Politicians talk a lot about children and how we need to make their lives better, but nothing changes
until we hold ourselves accountable.”

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countyman 09/24/12 - 02:46 am
The stats on the percentages

The stats on the percentages of children living in poverty and single parent homes must be related to the population of the school system, because it's not correct for the county... The census has the percentage of female households with children under 18 listed at 12.7% and male households at 2% in RC...

I would hope the RCBOE can implement some of things here accomplished in Savannah.. I also hope they can build new magnet schools, increasing the enrollment of former private school students, expand the IB program, implement magnet programs at other schools, and please build a new elementary/middle school near the Gordon Hwy/Jimmie Dyess area.. I commented in the other article how the RCBOE, sheriffs office, non profits, Kroc Center, Imperial Theater, Boys & Girls Club, community leaders, etc should all be working together..

Why does this paper continue to put Columbia County beside Richmond? They never mention the second largest county in the metro(Aiken County), and comparing Richmond/Columbia is similar too Columbia/Mcduffie in terms of population... I find it interesting they never breakdown the counties either, and compare West Augusta or Summerville versus the any other place..

countyman 09/24/12 - 03:26 am
I sometimes think people

I sometimes think people forget Richmond County is dealing with the same challenges other large urban counties are facing. The RCBOE needs to focus on public relations so the decent schools don't received the constant overall negative publicity... Leaders must understand things can improve, and don't become either complacent or get caught up in the feeling of helplessness.. If you can dramatically increase the number of parents to choose public schools at the elementary level.. Several of the middle schools and high schools will automatically change for the better.. The Chronicle would never tell the public how the truancy & absenteeism rates in Richmond County were lower than both Columbus and Athens.. Richmond 22% truancy rate, 35% Muscogee(Columbus) and 31% Clarke(Athens)... Richmond 22% absenteeism rate, 28% Columbus, and 25% Athens... They only want the citizens to know the truancy rate is twice as high compared to Columbia county, but nothing about the absenteeism rate being only separated by 8 percent.

The chronicle included an weird list of districts to compare.. They had the college town Athens in the group, but no Macon or Atlanta... . The articles makes you think the 2011 truancy/absenteeism rates of Chatham(Savannah) are impressive compared to Augusta.. When in reality it's even more impressive, because they beat out Columbia, & Cobb/Gwinnett(metro Atlanta suburban counties)...

Chatham 1%, Columbia 11%, Gwinnett 12%, Cobb 19%

Chatham 11%, Columbia/Gwinnett 14%, Cobb 17%

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 09/24/12 - 07:40 am
Truant Officer

Do you recall who the chief truant officer is for Richmond County schools? Why, it's none other than Richard Roundtree. Better get crackin’, Richard. Got some kids to round up.

Let's hope he keeps his job as truant officer and that Freddie Sanders becomes our next sheriff.

seenitB4 09/24/12 - 07:48 am
This article is VEERY interesting...

Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, said 65 percent to 90 percent of daytime burglaries are caused by truant students. In many major cities, cracking down on absenteeism directly results in a drop in crime, he said.

A direct drop in crime.....listen up Richmond county...

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 09/24/12 - 08:11 am

I'm trying to get my head around all the statistics. We learn that 65 to 90 percent of daytime burglaries are committed by school truants. Now we want to round them up and get them back in school.

If I were a teacher, I think I would rather have the truants out on the streets than in my classroom. Can you imagine the classroom management headaches with the truants in the classroom? Can you imagine the disruption? Can you imagine the loss of quality education opportunities for the students who really want to learn?

Here's the problem with compulsory attendance laws and policies: you cheat the students who behave (by providing them a substandard education) when you have to put disproportionate energy into students who act out, misbehave, and disrupt classrooms.

A public school education is a luxurious privilege. If these truants don't want it, don't make them swallow it.

lynn7044 09/24/12 - 11:04 am
I Disagree with Litte Lamb

As a mother who is present in my son high school, I have seen that most kids want to feel like someone care about them. When we have so many homeless kids in our school system, who come to school hungry everyday. Public school is a right and not a privilege. RCBOE have done so much uncover things and now things are coming to light.People are so quick to suspend kids from school and not have inter-school so that the kids can still get a education.
A good example I took a young man into my family who was trouble student and I showed him something different he is now getting back on track to graduated this year. Yes, it has taken him 5yrs to get there but he will be walking. I get on to him just like I do my kids, he come over,eat, cook, help with homework, and get punished like everyone else. He said to me that when he come around he can feel that we care about him.
I am a firm believer, "that when we was looking out for all our children that alot of things that are happening, wouldn't be happening". Also, there are much to much of baby having baby. I don't understand why RC don't have sex education in our schools.Students don't even know who they can trust when you have teachers who are trying to get with our students. I don't see why the board is not trying to get a conference with parents, educators, and other public officals so that we can start as a Richmond County Community to tackle some of these problem. We all need to get in the school and help our young people.
We thank you that you are not a teacher with that kind of feeling about students. Even your best kids have a bad day that the can also become disrupt as well.Every job isn't made for everyone.

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