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Charleston West Side leaders target student tardiness

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Charleston West Side leaders target student tardiness
By Samuel Speciale, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Students at West Side Mary C. Snow Elementary were tardy more than 5,000 times last year, education officials said Thursday during a meeting with an advisory board tasked with helping the area’s struggling schools overcome chronic absenteeism and poor achievement.

The group, made up of schools officials and black leaders, met Thursday to address growing concerns over failing test scores, truancy and disciplinary issues at Charleston’s four West Side schools. It was the group’s first meeting since May, when community members criticized local school officials over a perceived lack of support for programs helping West Side students, who are some of West Virginia’s poorest and most academically challenged.

“We have incredible challenges,” said the Rev. Matthew Watts, a community leader and pastor of the West Side’s Grace Bible Church.

Watts outlined issues troubling the area and asked those in attendance how they can best assure that children are in school and on time every day.

“That’s our biggest challenge,” he said, adding that he routinely sees children on the streets every morning when they should be in school.

While there are other issues plaguing the West Side schools — Edgewood, Grandview and West Side elementary schools and Stonewall Jackson Middle — the most alarming statistic shared Thursday was the amount of class time students at each school have missed.

Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said West Side students were tardy 5,780 times last year. At Grandview and Edgewood, students were tardy 2,312 and 2,635 times, respectively. At Stonewall Jackson, students were late 3,256 times.

“The biggest challenge we face is absenteeism,” he said.

Because West Side students already are disadvantaged, Duerring said, missing school exacerbates the problem.

“We’re always playing catch-up with these kids,” he said. “But we also have to try and get them on track.”

Advisory board members, which include the principals from each of the four schools, discussed innovative ways each school is addressing the issue.

While Duerring said the schools are making gains, specifically in achievement, he admitted that students have not progressed enough.

“We’re still not where we want to be,” he said, adding that the schools likely will remain in the bottom 25 percent in academic performance.

The advisory board, which Duerring said recently was reformed after months of not meeting, is part of a West Side community schools project created through Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s 2013 education reform legislation. The law, as Duerring puts it, allows schools to use “out-of-the-box” methods to improve attendance and achievement.

In May, community members, including Watts and other black leaders, met with Kanawha schools officials to discuss what they said was a lack of communication. After that meeting, Watts told the Gazette-Mail he felt encouraged that things would be better going forward.

Duerring said he hopes the group will meet at least every other month.