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September 30, 2014

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Breaking the habit of skipping school

New approaches seek to get to the root of truancy, a major contributor to Nevada’s low graduation rate

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SAM MORRIS / LAS VEGAS SUN FILE

Clark County schools attendance officer Lee Schell asks students why they are headed home during the school day, June 19, 2010. A joint project of the school district and the Clark County Family Court is meant to help prevent and reduce youth crime and re-engage students in learning.

With Nevada still reeling from the latest national report to lambaste its education system, educators and community advocates want the spotlight on what they say is a key factor in the Silver State’s dismal graduation rate — too many students skipping school.

For each of the past three academic years, the Clark County School District has cited more than 2,500 students for habitual truancy, meaning they had at least three unexcused absences. But those numbers likely represent a small percentage of tens of thousands of students who regularly skip class.

Edward Goldman, associate superintendent of education services, said it’s difficult to measure the extent of the district’s truancy problem. It has only 25 attendance officers to cover more than 350 campuses, and their duties are more comprehensive than just hunting truants.

Goldman sees many students who stop going to high school entirely after 10 unexcused absences in a semester because they know they’ll be denied credit for the class even if they make up the work. One solution might be to switch to a quarterly grading cycle instead of two semesters, Goldman said, so that students can at least earn partial credit.

“What kid is going to sit there from November to January when they know they’re not going to get credit?” Goldman said. “We have to give them an incentive.”

The district has tried many approaches to its truancy problem. It stepped up neighborhood patrols to search for wayward students and ferry them to school, and rewarded children for stellar attendance. But results are gains of only a percentage point or two.

There are alternative programs, such as the Academy of Individualized Study and the credit retrieval centers, where students can make up missing classes. But there aren’t enough seats to go around. And that comes back to the question of funding and priorities, Goldman said.

“Given the current economic situation, it’s tough to expect that money be diverted to truancy programs that very well might be more urgently needed elsewhere in the district,” Goldman said. “I could never justify having 80 students in a (regular) class so we could pay for more truant officers.”

Students who routinely skip school are doing harm to more than their chances of graduating on time. Research has shown truancy to be a gateway offense that often leads to crime. High school dropouts are more than three times as likely to be arrested and eight times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers who graduate.

State law requires the district have an aggressive program to combat truancy, but educators say the law is little more than an unfunded mandate. As a result, outside partners such as Clark County have stepped in to fill the gap.

This year, the county put $96,000 toward a District Court truancy diversion program at eight middle schools, which is where the problem starts for many students.

“We try to find out what the barrier is to why they’re not going to school,” said Debbie Rose, program’s coordinator. “Sometimes it’s that they don’t have the proper attire or school supplies. Sometimes there isn’t anybody telling them any different about how important it is that they get an education.”

In some cases, students are skipping school to stay home and babysit younger siblings while their parents work. The long-term solution would be “to wrap around these families so they get to the point that they don’t need us to tell them their kid has to go to school every day,” Rose said.

The program has been effective, albeit on a small scale, serving 225 students this year. In August, it will be at 11 campuses, including Cheyenne and Sunrise Mountain high schools. There isn’t money to expand further, no matter how much it’s needed, or how successful the approach might be.

For anyone seeking proof of the program’s effectiveness, Rose points to the change in the students’ demeanors at the conclusion of the 10-week session.

“They start out depressed and withdrawn — by the end, they’re making eye contact and smiling,” Rose said. “When you see a kid beaming from ear to ear, you know you’ve done good.”

The truancy diversion program can save the community money in the long run, given the high cost of incarceration, said Leonard Cash, Family Court administrator.

“We want to provide children with the resources, the help and the services he or she needs to get back in school, stay in school and graduate,” Cash said. “If you intervene early, they can become contributing members of society.”

To be sure, it’s not a problem unique to Southern Nevada. States are taking drastic measures to improve graduation and dropout rates by tackling truancy.

In Oklahoma, parents face jail time if their children skip school, and California is considering similar legislation. Maryland law prohibits habitual truants from receiving a learner’s permit.

One proposal being floated by the Nevada Public Education Foundation is creating a statewide database that would let various agencies — schools, juvenile justice, social service and nonprofit groups — share information about youths in their various programs.

There are multiple agencies and funding streams serving the state’s at-risk youth, but not enough communication or cooperation, said Chanda Cook, the foundation’s southern region director. The database would be a good start toward improving both, she said.

And there’s evidence a more cohesive approach can help.

In California, lawmakers and educators are heralding a new approach to combating truancy in Sacramento’s public schools. Since 2006, truants in grades 4-12 have been brought to “attendance centers,” where they are evaluated to identify the underlying reason for the student’s habitual absences. Then the requisite support teams — social workers, family counselors and tutors — are assigned to help. Since the program’s inception, unexcused absences have dropped 16 percent at the city’s high schools.

The conversations will continue this fall when the Nevada Public Education Foundation hosts a summit on addressing the state’s dropout crisis as part of its “Ready for Life” initiative. And the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Commission’s Committee on Youth has made truancy one of its targets for the coming year.

“It’s critical to the economic success of Nevada that we fully educate every child to the best of their ability,” Cook said. “As a community and a society, we cannot afford to lose this much in human capital.”

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