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Truancy rates continue to rise at Springfield schools

Date: 3/28/2011

March 28, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Although truancy rates saw an upswing during the month of January, Dr. Mary Anne Morris, the chief of pupil services for the Springfield Public Schools, said overall unexcused absences have decreased since 2008.

According to a monthly report written on March 4 and given to the School Committee, the truancy rate for January — an average — was 5.8 percent and the attendance rate was 91 percent. In January 2010, the truancy rate was 4.9 percent and the attendance rate was 90.3 percent.

While the truancy rates at elementary schools in January ranged from 0.1 percent to as high as 5.7 percent, the high school rates were much larger, with the High School of Commerce having the highest rate of 19.2 percent, an increase from 13.6 percent last January.

Morris said her staff is going to seek an answer to why truancy increased, especially during a month when attendance also increased.

Morris explained to Reminder Publications the current truancy rate of 5.8 percent shows progress compared to the rate in 2007 to 2008 when the average rate was 7.4 percent.

The 2007-2008 school year was the first one for the current Superintendent Dr. Alan Ingram, who formed an attendance committee that overhauled the city's attendance policy.

This policy states "specific and concrete interventions," Morris said, for dealing with truancy.

"[Truancy is] a community problem, as well as a school problem," she said. "It's not just a parent problem."

The city's schools must engage students better, keeping them interested in school and require the support of families and community agencies, she asserted.

The attention to attendance is important as Morris said it is "one of the strongest predictors of students going to drop out." She added that students should be watched from pre-school for conditions that could lead to truancy and dropping out of school.

Springfield schools do watch students and start intervention plans, Morris said, once highly at-risk students are identified.

"It's very data-driven analysis," she said.

The efforts to keep students in school are directed by a plan that is set in place by one unexcused absence. The families of students receive a phone call. By the third day of an absence, the family receives of letter of warning and a visit from a school staff member. As the number of days increase, the level of attention with additional letters and home visits also increases.

In January, staff members of the Springfield schools made 83,280 attendance phone calls, 2,686 home visits and sent out 2,199 letters of concerns, 4,425 letters of warning and 3,156 letters of critical status.

There are 13 attendance officers, one each assigned to the middle schools and high schools and several "floaters," who make phone calls and home visits, Morris said.

She added that absences are due to parents not sending in a note about an illness, something the attendance officers help check.

Another step in addressing chronic truancy at the high schools is the Springfield School Attendance Resource Center, a program in which highly at-risk students attend a class at the Massachusetts Career Development Institute that addresses issues to allow return to their regular schools.

This program is operated with the help of the Hampden Country Sheriff's Department, and Morris emphasized it is not a punitive.

Sheriff deputies also accompany the attendance officers going to areas where truants are known to congregate to talk to them and urge them to return to school, she explained.

In these tight budget times, Morris said the effort is not being cut, but its budget is not being increased.

"We're tightening up our processes," she said.

Morris emphasized that state law only states a child must attend school between the ages of 6 and 16 and that attendance officers and the schools do not have the legal means to enforce attendance. Only if a child is seen as in danger through his or her truancy can state agencies step in, she said.

Attending and graduating from the city's schools is part of the "economic health of the city," Morris said.

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