Wilkinsburg addresses chronic truancy issues

School district will start filing mandated citations

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For the first time since October 2012, some students and parents in the Wilkinsburg School District can expect to receive notices that truancy citations have been filed against them in district court.

The citations, which are required by state law but haven't been filed for most of the past two school years, will be part of a multi-pronged effort being undertaken to tackle the dramatic truancy problem in the district, said substitute superintendent Donna Micheaux.

The habitual truancy rate at Wilkinsburg High School increased from 57.4 percent in the 2011-12 school year to 76.2 percent in 2012-13. The districtwide rate during those years increased from 40.91 to 47.68 percent. Both are the highest numbers in the county, where the average districtwide truancy rate was 8.18 percent in 2012-13. Habitual truants are students who accumulate six or more unexcused absences.

"Moving forward as a district we need to have more specific procedures and proactive measures to address truancy," Ms. Micheaux said. "It is changing and it is changing very soon."

Velma Parker, who had served as the district's attendance officer for eight years prior to October 2012, will resume those duties. In February, the school board voted to assign the attendance duties for the remainder of the school year to Ms. Parker, who said she did not want them because of the heavy workload they would create for her. She immediately took a month-long stress-related leave of absence from her job.

Ms. Parker is also the district's coordinator for the Pennsylvania Information Management System, which tracks student attendance and other district data required by the state. She said when she was given the PIMS responsibilities in October 2012 by former superintendent Archie Perrin, he relieved her of the attendance officer duties. But no replacement was named.

After superintendent Lee McFerren took office in July, he and the board were at loggerheads over filling the attendance officer position because he suggested an employee who was a member of the teacher's union, and the board did not want the position filled by a union employee.

Ms. Micheaux took over the district on March 28, when the school board unanimously placed Mr. McFerren on administrative leave, with plans to terminate his contract at the end of the school year. She said Ms. Parker recently had agreed to take on the attendance officer duties with support from school staff and administration.

"We have to take a proactive role with all hands on deck. [Ms. Parker's position] should be sort of an end response. There is a role in this for teachers, guidance counselors and principals. I've talked in terms of all hands on deck on this," Ms. Micheaux said.

Mandatory school age is 8. and at age 17 students are permitted to withdraw from school. When students have three or more unexcused absences, they are considered truant and state law requires schools to send written notice to parents or guardians and to work with families to create a truancy elimination plan.

It's unclear how much, if any, of that was being done in Wilkinsburg in the absence of an attendance officer.

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. That has not happened in Wilkinsburg since October 2012.

The judge then holds a hearing and can continue the case while monitoring a student's attendance, set a fine of up to $300, order community service or require up to five days' incarceration.

In Wilkinsburg, the process to start addressing the truancy problem has started with Ms. Parker reviewing the truancy statistics from this school year and identifying the students with the most troublesome attendance records. Those students names will be turned over to school principals, and contact will be made with those families.

While citations will be filed as required by the state School Code, Ms. Micheaux said more importantly, the district will create a system for reaching out to families to identify the problems that are keeping students out of school and to help families overcome those problems.

"We are going to address this list immediately. But moving forward is when we will have a more comprehensive plan," she said.

Ms. Micheaux acknowledged that the efforts being taken now will not improve the 2013-14 truancy statistics that are reported to the state and used to compute average daily attendance. The attendance numbers are used by the state to compute funding and are a factor in the score the district's schools receive on their School Performance Profiles.

This year, Wilkinsburg High School already received the lowest academic score among regular public schools in Allegheny County at 36.3 out of 100.

"This really isn't about just improving numbers in a report," Ms. Micheaux said. "This is about trying to reach our families and our students so that we can reduce our truancy rate ... and so students can be in school and be educated."

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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