Truancy reaches epidemic levels in Wilkinsburg

More than 75% at high school are chronic truants

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More than 75 percent of students at Wilkinsburg High School are chronically truant, the highest rate of chronic truancy in Allegheny County by more than 20 percentage points.

Part of the reason so many high school kids don't show up for classes is that the Wilkinsburg School District has been without a state-mandated attendance officer to file truancy citations since October 2012.

As a result, last year the habitual truancy rate at the high school rose from 57.4 percent to 76.2 percent. The districtwide rate increased from 40.91 percent, the second-highest in the county in 2011-12, to 47.68 percent, the highest in the county in 2012-13.

As defined by the state, a habitual truant is a student with six or more unexcused absences. The rates are computed based on the populations and absences in grades 1-11, the grades in which students fall into the compulsory school ages of 8 to 17 years old.

School board member Karen Payne, who served as board president for many years until December, said she had no idea the district's and high school's truancy rates were so high. The issue came to a head Tuesday, when the board began a discussion about whether the proposed new attendance officer should be a member of the teachers union.

"I'm concerned about the children not going to school," Ms. Payne said. "For some of the kids, there's a reason that they are not going to school, and we need to find out what that is. For others, they are just not going and we need to deal with that, too."

Converted to numbers, the high school rate means there were 157 habitual truants out of the 206 students in grades 9-11 at Wilkinsburg High School last school year. The next highest was McKeesport High School at just over 53 percent.

Districtwide in Wilkinsburg, there were 484 habitual truants out of the 1,105 students enrolled in grades 1-11 in 2012-13.

In comparison, the countywide truancy rate for 2012-13 was 8.18 percent. The numbers are those recorded in the state's Safe Schools Report.

Board president Ed Donovan, who was elected in November and became president in December, said he was astounded by the attendance numbers.

Mr. Donovan learned of the vacant position, the district's non-compliance with state regulations and the staggeringly high truancy rates in the wake of Tuesday's meeting.

"We will address this the very next time the board meets and we will have someone in place as soon as humanly possible," Mr. Donovan said.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said districts must have an employee whose duties include enforcing compulsory attendance. It's unclear if Wilkinsburg will face any penalties for leaving the position vacant.

Why the position has gone unfilled for so long is uncertain.

The position was formerly held by Velma Parker, who is currently the district's Pennsylvania information management system administrator, a job that entails compiling all student data and filling out state reports on attendance, truancy and other required areas. Ms. Parker said when she was appointed to her new job in October 2012, former superintendent Archie Perrin relieved her of the duties of attendance officer.

She said she was on sick leave for several months after being relieved of the duties and when she returned in the spring of 2013, she found out there had been no citations filed in her absence.

"I find it disgraceful that a departing school executive would leave his district in such jeopardy," Mr. Donovan said of Mr. Perrin's failure to fill the position.

Mr. Perrin declined to comment on why he did not fill the position because he is now retired. He referred all questions to current superintendent Lee McFerren.

Mr. McFerren said he recognized shortly after taking over as superintendent in July that the attendance officer position needed to be filled and that he and human resources director Andrea Williams suggested it be filled by the current home and school visitor. But the board rejected that idea because that employee is a member of the teachers' union and the board did not want the attendance officer to be in a union position.

Mr. McFerren said it makes sense to give the duties to an existing employee rather than create a new position and new expense for the district. He said he tried to sign truancy citations recently, but they were rejected by the court because he is not the attendance officer.

"There are kids who need services. What difference does it make if the employee is in the union?" he said.

Ms. Payne said it was the board that informed Mr. McFerren that the attendance officer position needed to be filled when he came in July. She agreed with Mr. McFerren's account that he presented the home school visitor as a candidate early on and that the board rejected it because of the union issue.

Ms. Payne said the position has never been in the bargaining unit and that the board did not want to add it.

She said she expected administrators to either ask the home and school visitor to leave the union so she could take the position or to advertise for another candidate.

Instead, she said Mr. McFerren simply brought the same candidate to the table at Tuesday's workshop, where she and several other board members opposed placing a union member in the position.

"We are in the middle of negotiations and you don't just willingly take a non-union position and fill it with a union person," Ms. Payne said. "There are certain key positions that should not be union positions and that's one of them. To me the attendance officer is a very key position because they have to keep figures that are reported to the Department of Education."

Ms. Payne said she is concerned the lack of an attendance officer could hurt the district financially because districts are funded based on their average daily attendance rate. High truancy rates would reduce the attendance rate and the state funding.

The attendance rate also factors into the school performance profiles instituted by the state this year.

The profiles, which measure districts on multiple factors, including test scores, attendance and graduation rates, replace the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams that were previously used to measure student achievement.

When Wilkinsburg High School's school performance profile for 2012-13 was released in December, its score of 36.3 out of 100 was the lowest of any school in Allegheny County and the 17th lowest of schools in the state. According to the profile, just 13 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in algebra, 18 percent in literature and 3 percent in biology. The academic scores for the elementary and middle schools were among the lowest in the county.

In addition to the high school and district truancy rates, the rate at Wilkinsburg Middle School for 2012-13 was 76.19 percent, with 96 habitual truants out of an enrollment of 126 students. At Turner Elementary School the rate was 43.02 percent with 114 habitual truants out of 265 students, and at Kelly Elementary School 27.75 percent with 116 habitual truants out of 418 students.


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263.1590.

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