The Pleasantville School District took 55 parents to Municipal Court during the 2011-12 school year because their children were chronically absent from school without a legitimate excuse.
Parents were fined a total of $4,000 for failure to make sure their children attended school, Truancy/Attendance Coordinator Steven Mitchell said.
The court appearance, allowed by law, is a last resort for public school officials whose primary goal is to have students in school learning. Before that point, the district has sent letters, met with parents and enrolled students in a program that offers small incentives to improve attendance and grades.
“Students who come to school reap benefits,” Pleasantville Superintendent Garnell Bailey said. “If the child is here, their grades improve.”
There are also new financial incentives for school districts to keep students in school. The state Department of Education has begun basing state aid on average daily attendance, with a loss of aid if the rate drops below 96 percent.
Statewide, the school attendance rate in 2010-11 was just below 95 percent. A state Office of Legislative Services analysis of the proposed 2012-13 education budget estimated that 73 percent of districts got a “downward adjustment,” losing $120.4 million in state aid in 2012-13. Low-income districts lost the most funding.
While truancy is typically a high school problem, a 2008 research project found that more than a third of a group of students in Baltimore missed one or more months of school during at least one of their first five years of school, establishing a pattern for failure.
And truancy is not just a school problem. A 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention said truancy is one of the early warning signs of social problems, substance abuse, and early sexual and criminal behavior. Truants are more likely to drop out of school, limiting their job options.
In urban schools, family and social problems contribute to truancy, local school officials said. A Bridgeton student was not allowed to graduate this year because he had missed 38 days of school as a junior, losing credits he needed to graduate. The student appealed to the Department of Education, saying he had a medical condition and had attempted to make up the credits over the summer, but instead was incarcerated on unrelated criminal charges that were ultimately resolved in his favor. The education commissioner denied the appeal.
In Wildwood, the Rotary Club will buy inexpensive rain ponchos for all first-graders next year. The district does not bus, many parents do not have cars, and some children simply don’t come to school when the weather is bad.
“We also have some flooding issues, so the school nurse always has a supply of dry socks,” Glenwood Avenue School Principal John Kummings said. “It was her idea to get the ponchos.”
The school provides breakfast and lunch, also an incentive to come to school every day, Kummings said. But some families move frequently, resulting in many missed days of school until they are settled.
“Then once the children are back in school, teachers must put in extra time to help them catch up,” Kummings said.
When parents leave for work before the child leaves for school, students can arrive late, or not at all. Pleasantville will phone and send a letter to parents once students have missed three days, Mitchell said. Truancy and security personnel track students daily. A second letter is accompanied by a home visit after five missed days, and there is a session with a mediator after seven days. If parents fail to attend the mediation session, a court complaint is filed.
Commercial Township school officials told acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf during a recent visit to the district that parents have claimed to be home-schooling to stop district interference. The school can contact the state Division of Youth and Family Services to investigate, but officials asked if there could be more regulation of home-schooling to prevent such abuses. Cerf said that would likely take Legislative action.
Students can legally drop out at 16, after which the district can no longer hold parents responsible. Mitchell said he supports a proposed bill that would raise the mandatory school age to 18 so they could try to keep those students in school. Pleasantville high school had a 6 percent dropout rate in 2010-11, and only about 64 percent of the freshmen who entered high school in 2007 graduated in 2011. A truancy vehicle patrols the city daily.
“We’ve had parents call us and ask us to come get the child because they are out of control,” said Pleasantville Schools Director of Security Ray H. Ellis Jr.
Last year, Pleasantville began its Passport to Success program for students ages 6 to 15 years old that provides incentives such as small gift cards to students who come to school every day and improve their grades. In 2010-11, 600 students were placed in the program, but in 2011-12 the number dropped to 450.
The attendance rate also inched up a couple of points from 90 percent to 92 percent at the high school and 95 percent at the middle school. Rewards are given monthly to keep students on track. Twenty-five students improved enough to earn a trip to Great Adventure.
Superintendent Bailey said the program is part of a districtwide effort to keep students in school. The district will switch to primarily in-school suspensions from 3-7 p.m. next year rather than out-of-school suspensions that just give kids days off. The Beat the Streets program will continue through the summer to give students an alternative to hanging out.
“We know they should all just come to school because it’s the right thing to do,” Bailey said. “But some need extra encouragement. ”
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