Allegheny County schools, courts tackle truancy

Back to School/Missing Class: The second of three parts



Each school day, Clairton associate principal Deborah Marshall sits at her desk and takes a mental snapshot of who is attending school regularly and who is not.

Posted on her wall is a chart, updated weekly, showing the attendance records of each of the nearly 800 students in the district. Ms. Marshall can tell at a glance who among the absentees has a legitimate excuse and who likely is truant.

Those without valid excuses are going to hear from her.

If necessary, Ms. Marshall said, "If someone doesn't come to school, I will make a home visit. I will show up at your door."

Clairton's efforts are similar to those of other local districts where school leaders are tackling truancy with a combination of enforcement and prevention.

About this series

As the school year starts, attention is on school attendance. Here's a quick glance at what this series will be covering:

Sunday: Absenteeism

Today: Truancy

Tuesday: Suspensions

The topic is discussed regularly among school officials, juvenile court officers, social service agency representatives and child advocates in a countywide truancy roundtable that has been co-chaired by Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff for the past several years along with family court administrator Cindy Stoltz.

No longer seen as strictly a disciplinary issue, truancy is now viewed as a symptom of larger problems in a student's life and an obstacle to academic achievement.

Those discussions and findings from a statewide report issued in 2010 have prompted local school and court officials to recognize that the reasons for truancy lie both within and outside of the school buildings.

Inside factors include bullying, harassment or academic struggles. Outside factors include homelessness, lack of clothing or transportation, family dysfunction, physical and mental health issues and behavior problems.

PG graphic: Habitual truancy rates
(Click image for larger version)

"There are a lot of reasons that kids miss school. Some are appropriate. Some are not," Judge Woodruff said.

Instead of a punitive approach, educators and court officials are trying to send the message that students need to be in school so they can learn and succeed in academics and life.

But the message may not be resonating with all families.

More than 11,000 students in Allegheny County were habitually truant -- have six or more unexcused absences -- in 2011-12, the most recent year available for the state Safe Schools report.

In that year, 7.8 percent of students in Allegheny County public school districts were habitual truants. That rate was slightly higher than the statewide rate of 6.7 percent in all public schools.

In Allegheny County, habitual truancy rates ranged from less than 1 percent in a handful of districts to 43.8 percent in the McKeesport Area School District.

Wilkinsburg had the second highest habitual truancy rate that year at 40.9 percent, with larger rates at its high school, 57.4 percent, and middle school, 75.4 percent.

Other districts with habitual truancy rates of about 20 percent or higher include Brentwood, Clairton, Penn Hills, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox and Woodland Hills.

Pittsburgh Public Schools had a districtwide habitual truancy rate of 4.3 percent, but pockets of high truancy among its 54 schools.

Habitual truancy rates tend to increase in the middle and high school grades, though some districts also had high rates at kindergarten. Clairton had 33 truant kindergarten students, the highest among its grade levels, and Wilkinsburg had 54 truant kindergartners, a total that came in second to its seventh grade with 64.

However, in McKeesport Area, habitual truancy rates of 40 percent or higher were found at all levels. Only White Oak Elementary was lower at 17 percent.

McKeesport Superintendent Tim Gabauer said the transient nature of the district's communities contributes to the problem, as do socioeconomic issues and a lack of understanding among the truant families about the importance of education.

Mr. Gabauer said the district is taking outreach programs into the communities to allow families to develop relationships with school staff and has joined countywide programs organized to promote attendance and decrease truancy.

But he acknowledges those efforts still have not been enough.

In Pennsylvania, school attendance is mandatory at age 8, and at age 17 students are old enough to withdraw from school.

While kindergarten is not mandatory, districts are pursuing parents with truancy citations if they enroll their students in kindergarten and then quit sending them on a regular basis. However, a case appealing that practice is before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

When students have three or more unexcused absences, they are considered truant. State law requires schools to send written notices to parents or guardians and work with the family to create a truancy elimination plan.

After six unexcused absences, students are considered habitually truant, and the state school code calls for a citation to be filed with a district judge. The judge can set a fine of up to $300, order community service or require up to five days in jail.

Districts have differing policies on when to file a truancy citation.

Parents generally are cited for students under age 13. Older students can face the citations themselves if parents can show they tried to get their children to go to school but they refused.

Students convicted of truancy can lose their driver's license for up to 90 days for a first offense and an additional six months for every additional truancy conviction.

Schools report their worst truancy cases to the county Office of Children Youth and Families. That can lead to a dependency hearing that could result in a truant child being removed from home, said Nancy Potter, an attorney with the Education Law Center.

Instead of penalties, judges often prefer to work with families.

"There's been a change within the last five years from a punitive system to a supportive system," Ms. Potter said.

Judge Woodruff opposes fines for truancy. "It doesn't address the issue of truancy, what caused it in the first place," he said.

Glassport District Judge Armand Martin holds truancy court monthly at Clairton High School in a makeshift courtroom in a spare classroom. He said this eliminates transportation issues for families and helps him to stay in contact with school officials.

Judge Martin said he prefers to meet with the family and continue the case, giving the student or parent a chance to correct the problem.

"Sometimes it's helpful; sometimes it's not. The sad reality is some of these kids are going to be young adults and realize that they should have done something differently," he said.

A truancy hearing is often the first time a family will share details of what's keeping their children from school.

"Most people will not tell you until the court is knocking on their door, until the last stop," said Wilkinsburg truancy officer Velma Parker.

Ms. Parker and recently retired Wilkinsburg superintendent Archie Perrin said much of Wilkinsburg High School's truancy rate can be blamed on students being required to assume adult responsibilities at home, by either caring for younger siblings or ill parents or having children of their own.

In addition, more than 200 of Wilkinsburg's 1,000 students are considered homeless, living in temporary quarters doubled-up with friends or relatives, shelters or other conditions.

"If they were evicted, they don't have access to their clothes. If they slept on someone's floor and their back hurts and there is no good food to eat in the house, they are not going to come to school," Ms. Parker said.

At Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, also known as University Prep, the Safe School report showed a nearly 21 percent habitual truancy rate in 2011-12. Officials are finding some success at combatting truancy.

Attendance officer Nick Bordone said the number of truancy citations he filed dropped by about one-third, from 154 in 2011-12 to 55 in 2102-13.

The efforts include hiring student services assistant Belinda Lowry in 2012-13 to be a liaison with families of chronically absent or tardy students. Milliones Principal Derrick Hardy said a goal is to find the reasons behind absences before students become truant.

Past practice at the school was to contact the family after three consecutive days were missed. But now, contact is made as soon as staff notices any pattern emerging with repeated absences.

In addition, the school was reorganized into smaller learning groups led by team leaders and a core group of teachers.

Despite districts' efforts, a small number of students still refuse to go to school.

"I'll go to the house and do the truancy elimination plan. But the kids still say, 'I don't want to come to school,' and the parents look at me and say, 'What can I do?' " said Kellie Irwin, home and school visitor for Woodland Hills high and middle schools.

Jeremy Peters, 19, of Brentwood simply quit going to school his senior year. "There just wasn't motivation to go to school," he said.

Instead, he headed for street corners where he hung out with old friends, even though he knew it was a bad choice.

He fell so far behind that school administrators gave him two choices: Drop out or enroll in Project Succeed, a diploma retrieval program operated by Keystone Oaks School District. Mr. Peters chose Project Succeed and earned enough credits to graduate a year later with the class of 2013 of Brentwood High School.

A morning in Clairton's truancy court last spring showed the ups and downs of districts' efforts to combat truancy. Though truancy hearings are closed under state law, some parents and students in Clairton gave permission for a reporter to sit in on their sessions.

The judge dismissed cases against a boy, 16, and girl, 17, who were previously truant, but now enrolled in the district's cyber school and were current on their work.

A tougher case was a 17-year-old boy who entered the courtroom pushing a stroller holding his infant baby and accompanied by his father. He had numerous unexcused absences and was enrolled in the district's cyber program, but was not completing the work. He promised to do better.

The judge continued his case for 30 days, ordering him to log on for five hours a day "and you have to really work." The judge issued a warning: "This is your last opportunity."

That was followed by a girl, 15, with frequent absences, whose mother has been unable to get her to go to school. The judge warned the girl he was holding her, not her mother, responsible.

A final case involved an 18-year-old male, who had corrected his truancy problem and had been accepted to college, but had accrued 35 tardies.

The judge cautioned: "You don't want to trip and fall at the finish line."

education - region

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published September 2, 2013 4:15 AM


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