By Mackenzie Mays - The Charleston Gazette
Nearly one in three public school students in West Virginia missed at least five days of class last year without an excuse, according to data from the state Department of Education. That marks those students as truant, which could mean fines, court hearings or even jail time for parents.
A handful of school districts in the state had more than half of their students miss at least five unexcused days during the 2013-14 school year, with McDowell and Wyoming counties topping the list with 58 and 57 percent of their students marked as truant.
An additional 10,000 students have been added to the state’s truancy list in the last two years, for an overall truancy rate of about 31 percent.
Kanawha County Magistrate Traci Carper-Strickland oversees truancy cases in Kanawha County — the state’s largest school district — where about 34 percent of students have five or more unexcused absences. Carper-Strickland likes to consider herself as a last resort, and said while it’s important that the state is taking truancy more seriously, the goal is to help students and families — not scare them.
She said that schools across the state should be constantly identifying truant and at-risk students and reaching out to their families. But identifying the problem in each case isn’t easy, she said.
“It’s hit or miss. Each case is different. I can have a juvenile petition filed, and I start talking to everybody involved and find out that a parent may physically drop their kid off at school, but they walk out the back door,” Carper-Strickland said. “The flip side to that can be much worse. That’s why it’s important to sit down and collaborate and figure it out.”
Last year, there were 245 juvenile petitions filed in Kanawha County — down by more than 80 since the year before, Carper-Strickland said. In truancy cases involving a student under the age of 12, the responsibility falls on the parents. A letter is sent home for the first offense and usually means a fine for each day the student is absent. A second offense could mean jail time. For students over the age of 12, truancy isn’t a jailable offense for parents or students, but it could mean probation for repeat offenders. Carper-Strickland closely monitors truant students to assure they get back on track, and schools can offer various resources through partnerships with organizations like the Department of Health and Human Resources.
“I don’t know if people are afraid or too proud to ask for that help, but it’s there. They need to know it’s there, and they need to be able to ask for it,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, there is no punishment for students. We’re trying to keep them out of court. We give them the opportunity to correct the problem without having to see a judge.”
In McDowell County, where top education leaders have implemented an ongoing reform project in the low-achieving district, truancy cases are a clear byproduct of high poverty and high drug abuse, said Superintendent Nelson Spencer.
“It all ties together. You really can’t separate one from another,” he said. “We like to reach out to the students themselves. We deal with the students one-on-one more than we do the parents.”
Spencer said his district has hired “graduation coaches” to spend extra time with at-risk students in the county’s high schools. He said that resources provided by Reconnecting McDowell — the reform project spearheaded by the American Federation of Teachers — have contributed to engaging students and making them want to come to school more than before.
In Jefferson County, only about 7 percent of the county’s 9,000 students have been marked truant, the lowest rate in the state.
It didn’t always used to be that way, though, said Sheri Hoff, the county’s director of attendance. “Our numbers were astronomically high nearly a decade ago — near 80 percent. We weren’t really identifying them then. Now, we have a concerted effort. A bus driver, a cafeteria manager, they all make calls to let us know,” Hoff said. “We have pushed very hard for a number of years to get [students] here and to get interventions in place.”
Jefferson County essentially embedded attendance tracking into the schools’ daily to-do lists, Huff said, with a specialist visiting all of the district’s 17 schools a few times a week.
About 8 percent of the district’s students qualify as homeless, but that hasn’t deterred school officials from getting those students to attend on a daily basis as well, Hoff said. The district has partnered with community agencies, including law enforcement, to make sure students attend.
“It’s not unusual for me to have an officer call and say he stopped this mom for dead tags and discovered she’s living in her car with two children,” Hoff said. “We work with families to provide them what they need to get students to school. We’ll provide transportation or work with the community to find them housing. We do whatever we can.”