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.”