Students can’t learn if they don’t come to school. Atlanta intends to turn up the heat on parents whose children miss school. It intends to enforce a tough 2009 ordinance that allows a $1,000 fine and up to 60 days in jail when students skip school .
In writing about truancy policies over the years as an editorial writer, I have found inconsistent and ineffectual policies that kick in too late to deter kids from dropping out. This is a critical issue because today’s dropouts become tomorrow’s prison inmates. Nationwide, 71 percent of the prison population never finished high school. When you look at the arrest records of inmates, the first charge is typically truancy.
Despite all the hand wringing over intransigent truants and indifferent parents, there are some responses that have made a difference. One is having enough social workers. Under the staggering caseloads they now carry, school social workers are expected to be miracle workers. We need more social workers in our schools.
In most truancy cases, parents will get their children to school if a social worker knocks on their door once or twice and mentions the possibility of jail. Once those kids are back in their classes, social workers can concentrate on the chronic truants whose parents can’t be coerced into cooperation.
The consequences should take effect quickly, not when the student has amassed a month of absences and is hopelessly behind. And the consequences should focus on catching the children up in their schoolwork, rather than on suspensions that only push them further behind.
Studies find that while tumultuous home lives contribute to truancy, students themselves put the greater blame on their school lives. They cite irrelevant courses, strained relations with teachers, social isolation and their inability to do well in their classes. Truancy-prevention programs have to figure out a way to engage these kids in school and to connect them to other people in the building. As straightforward and obvious as those goals sound, the designs of Georgia schools actually work against them.
Our schools have grown too big for teachers to know their students very well. It’s easy for kids to slip off the radar screen. And the increasing emphasis on test scores gives schools greater incentives to see these chronic truants drop out than remain in class.
But there are notable exceptions. Many Georgia counties are doing a lot to keep kids on track, from paying home visits to providing rides from after-school tutoring.
Atlanta plans to address the chronic truants by raising the stakes for their parents by enforcing its 2009 law, which was enacted because of the scope of the city’s truancy problem. Almost 44 percent of high school students missed 10 or more days of school last year, up from 40 percent in 2009-10, according to the AJC story. That’s compared with about 25 percent in Fulton County.
The 2-year-old rule has seldom been enforced until now, said Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who helped create the ordinance. Mitchell said the goal is to get the attention of parents, to educate them about the importance of good attendance and to help connect them with social programs to ensure their children are regularly going to school.
But critics say the approach is flawed and could cause more worry for families already in distress. “Given the crisis we’re facing in terms of truancy, we could haul droves of parents into court,” Mitchell said. “That is not our objective.”
Research shows that students with better attendance are more likely to earn a high school diploma. But unexcused school absences are a persistent problem in metro Atlanta and across the state despite an array of interventions and deterrence programs.
In Cobb, 8 percent to 10 percent of students log more than 15 absences each school year. In Fulton, almost 25 percent of high school students missed 10 or more days. So far this year, about 8 percent of Gwinnett’s high school students have logged 10 or more absences, both excused and unexcused, according to a school spokesman. DeKalb County, Powder Springs and Kennesaw have ordinances similar to what’s in Atlanta, according to school and county officials.
There’s also punishments built into state law. Georgia students with 10 or more unexcused absences can lose their driver’s license. A query by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found students in virtually every county had their licenses yanked because of missed days. Gwinnett, the state’s largest school system, had the most absence-related license suspensions in 2010, with 2,269 out of a statewide total of 12,974.
After five unexcused absences, a parent can be fined up to $100 and sentenced to 30 days in jail or community service, according to state law. The most severe cases are referred to Juvenile Court.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog