04/02/08 — Schools target absence problem

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Schools target absence problem

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 2, 2008 1:46 PM

School attendance is not only a right, it's the law -- and county officials say they are redoubling their efforts to make sure children are in class.

With end-of-grade tests fast-approaching, missing a day of school for any reason should be cause for concern, local social workers and school personnel say.

From the high school level -- where students are on block scheduling so a missed class equals two or three days' worth of work -- to the lower grades, absenteeism can create problems.

"It's easy to get behind and you miss that interaction, what the teacher is saying, what the book is saying," said Denise Meacham, a social worker assigned to Spring Creek High School.

"The teacher is never going to repeat what she said," added Etta Craigwell, lead social worker with Wayne County Public Schools. "(Students) miss what was said ... and they have already been left behind."

The not-so-coincidental reference to the federal legislation, No Child Left Behind, expresses what many educators feel throughout the school year.

"If you miss 20 days or 50-something days, if you think about it, think about how much instruction is lost," Ms. Craigwell said.

Social workers have long absorbed the role of ensuring students are in school.

"When we first started with one social worker, the job was to help with attendance," explained Dr. Sandra McCullen, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "That's still one of the roles for our 18 social workers now."

Across the board, the school system averages 95 percent attendance in its 33 schools. On a daily basis, though, that ranges from 71 percent to 98 percent, Dr. McCullen said. In recent years, there have been more student health problems. Diabetes and asthma in particular have been on the rise.

While medical reasons are on the list of lawful absences -- along with death in immediate family, medical or dental appointments, court or administrative proceedings -- the other end of the spectrum is the miscellaneous reasons families simply don't send a child to school.

The family court program has instituted truancy court in some of the county's schools to offset this problem.

"We'll bring in to our setting a simulated court situation for children who have truancy issues," said Sharon Jeanes, a social worker assigned to Southern Wayne High and Mount Olive Middle schools.

The program, which is scheduled in the mornings before school, has already been proven successful at several area elementary schools. Parents or guardians are also required to attend.

"We discussed behavior, family issues and positive reinforcements," Mrs. Jeanes said. "We had incentives for the kids and brought in progress reports and notes."

Such efforts promote responsibility and character education, Mrs. Meacham said.

By instilling such behavior in the earlier grades, Ms. Craigwell said, the habit of regular attendance is in place by middle and high school.

"Twenty-some years ago, they charted attendance history," Mrs. Meacham said. "They could see it starting in kindergarten, the child may have missed 30 days. In subsequent years, the child may have missed less, but by the time they got to middle school, they were doubling the days they missed in kindergarten."

According to the study, she added, those who missed the most days early on had all dropped out by the time they reached high school.

"Students need to be in school for 80 days. That's the state law," Dr. McCullen said. "We're concerned not only about their social well-being but their academic well-being.

"You have to be in school to learn."

In grades K-8, students are allowed 20 absences, Ms. Craigwell said. But that number changes in high school, where class lengths are longer and therefore shorten the amount of time that can be missed.

"After six absences, your (class) credit is in jeopardy," she said.

Years ago, particularly around the 1960s, school districts had truancy officers responsible for tracking down absentees like bounty hunters and returning them to the classroom. That role shifted in the late 1980s to attendance counselors and now school social workers.

"I think it eventually evolved over the state so that it was just more -- there was a greater need of services there," Mrs. Meacham said.

Social workers cover a variety of roles, Dr. McCullen said. In addition to working closely with individuals and families, they often find themselves accessing services and even working with the court system in some cases.

In many instances, students miss school for legitimate reasons, Mrs. Meacham said. That's where developing closer relationships with children and families is helpful, particularly when it comes to providing services to help the student succeed in school.

"We deal with students now from obesity to heart conditions to asthma, school phobias, anxiety attacks, accidents," just to name a few, she said.

With such an array of situations, it's a challenge to achieve the school system's ultimate goal -- a personalized education to make each student successful.

"Our mission is to create a citizens who's knowledgeable, a learner, self-sufficient, happy," said Mrs. Meacham.

The value of education, though, is just a small portion of the social workers' message, Ms. Craigwell said.

"Not only is it a privilege. It's a right, and citizens have a responsibility to come to school until they're 16," Mrs. Meacham said.

There is currently a big push statewide to increase the dropout rate to age 18, Dr. McCullen said, a topic expected to be tackled by the legislature in 2009.

In the meantime, educators hope to continue sending the message that a child's education should be a collaborative effort between parents, the schools and the community, she said.