From Milwaukee to Memphis, Truancy Problematic for Schools


Over the past 16 years, Milwaukee Public School students' truancy levels have been spiraling upward, even despite the rate dropping 14% between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. More than 70% of Milwaukee's high school students were considered truant in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the latest data from the state Department of Public Instruction.

The Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service's Kelly Meyerhofer reports that even though the Truancy Abatement and Burglary Suppression (TABS) program, started in 1993, has had some success, MPS truancy bounced between 45% and 60% in the late 90s and topped off at 81% in the 2011-2012 school year. In the eyes of state law, the definition of truancy is "a student who is absent from school without an acceptable excuse for part or all of five or more days on which school is held during a semester."

In Milwaukee, there are several interventions; parents can provide a cell phone number for the call and teachers can send a notification in the mail or request a home visit. Even though state statute labels students as habitual truants after five unexcused absences, parents are not notified by an MPS social worker until a student has eight unexcused absences.

Ken Seeley, founder of the National Center for School Engagement, says intervention should be required before a student is labeled a truant. Elise Dizon-Ross, an education policy expert, says once a student has missed nine days of a 90-day semester, he or she is in the danger zone for becoming a dropout. In other words, students who reach the threshold that triggers response from MPS may already be at risk.

Because socioeconomic elements play a large part in attendance, the city is relying on two TABS centers located at Boys and Girls Clubs locations. Beth King, a truancy program coordinator on the city's South Side, said:

"Unlike other programs, we have the clout," she explained. "We can say ‘you're going to have to go to court.' Other programs can't say that because they don't have the connection with the police officers or municipal courts."

Educators believe that one answer to the problem is to engage students in the classroom and using mentoring to keep kids in their seats. The Check and Connect program, a federally funded initiative aimed initially at helping special education students, includes a mentor who "checks" on students by monitoring attendance, grades, and connecting with not only students, but parents as well.

Racine, Wisconsin has cut its truancy rate from 21.7% to 9% in two years by changing the way citations are issued to truant students, reports Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel. At this time, students must be caught in person by police to receive a truancy ticket, and Racine began to push truant offenders through municipal court, not juvenile court.

Alderman Tony Zielinski wants to do the same in Milwaukee. The idea is to identify truant students and mail citations to them, and, possibly their parents. To reach those students not being helped by the TABS program, he wants to make it possible for schools to call the Police Department and share names of truant students, which would be in conflict with MPS' privacy clause that does not permit the sharing of student information outside of school.

Wisconsin's cities aren't alone. According to Stephen Jackson, principal of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., since the D.C. State Board of Education approved stricter attendance regulations, monitoring truancy has become an overwhelming job. Michael Alison Chandler, writing for The Washington Post, says that it seems the new D.C. law is having a positive impact. Students ages five to 17 with more than 10 absences dropped from 27% in 2012-2013 to 18% in the most recent school year. The problem is that implementing the new rules and dealing with frustrated parents is time-consuming and complicated.

A pilot program in New Orleans public schools will offer "intensive case management at the Youth Opportunity Center" free of charge, according to Danielle Dreilinger, reporting for The Times-Picayune. There is no central office to oversee truants who are picked up by police and dropped at the old truancy center, part of the Recovery School District. In the city, 6,500 students were "chronically absent" (missing more than 10% of the school year). The Youth Opportunity Center will include a licensed social worker who will assess the students and academically assess younger children, who will then be taken back to school. The assessments will dictate what type of support or services are needed for each child. Families who cooperate with the case managers will not be sent to court.

Les Smith, in an opinion piece for the Memphis Flyer, says that Memphis has a crisis – student truancy – along with a connection to youth violence. The situation has become so serious that Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is ready to withhold financial benefits from parents who have failed to meet the responsibility of assuring that their children are in school.

In August, the number of Memphis children not showing up for school numbered about 9,000. In late September, students missing school at the five-day threshold had grown to 9,000. There was a plan put in place two years ago that required students who were picked up for truancy to be dropped off at truancy assessment centers, followed by meetings with parents and school officials to get them back in school, but budget cuts stopped this program. Smith says the city is perishing from neglecting the education of Memphis' children.

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