DPS working to lower truancy rates

Jul. 09, 2014 @ 05:42 PM

Last month, Durham city and county governments released a joint assessment on the state of gang involvement in the community that shed light onto the gang activity in the community. One of the more troubling findings presented by the Durham County Department of Criminal Justice Resource Center pinpointed five high schools and two middle schools in the Durham Public Schools System ranked in the bottom 10 percent of attendance rates in the state.

The schools are Neal and Brogdan middle schools; Southern, Performance Learning Center, Northern, Hillside and Lakeview high schools. 
Out of 115 school districts in the state, Durham ranks 72 in average daily attendance.
Deborah Pitman, assistant superintendent for student, family and community services, said the school system is taking steps to ensure all students can attend school and families know the importance of attending school.
“Durham Public Schools takes attendance very seriously,” Pitman said. She said one unexcused absence isn’t necessarily cause for alarm; it’s when that number grows that it becomes a problem.
“Where it is very important for us is when we start to see students not coming to school for unexcused reasons,” Pitman said, and a pattern starts to form.
But how does attendance play into gang violence or potential gang activity? In an urban school district like Durham’s, students are already juggling risk factors for gang involvement such as high poverty rates. Truancy also adds another risk factor to the students in the Durham Public School System, reducing the likelihood of graduation and academic achievement.
“What we’re seeing is that kids that are truant from school are typically unsupervised,” Jim Struit, gang reduction strategy manager with the Criminal Justice Resource Center, said in an interview with The Herald-Sun in June. Being unsupervised can lead to a situation “ripe for criminal activity.”
Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield agreed with Struit.
“(Truancy) is one of the factors and indicators that can lead up to (gang involvement); it does start with the fundamentals around behaviors and school,” Bonfield said.
Pitman said the school system works to make sure students are attending school, and one of the ways it works to combat truancy is to “connect in positive ways with the parents and family.”
By connecting with the family, Pitman said, the parents or guardians are able to see how important it is for students to attend school on a daily basis.
Theresa McGowan, director of prevention services for DPS, said connecting with the parents can lead to finding out why a student missed school for a couple of days — whether the student was sick and the parent didn’t send a note or the parent sent a note and the student lost it.
There is already a system in place to alert parents of an increased number of unexcused absences. The district sends out letters after a student accumulates six unexcused absences. Then during that time, McGowan said staff members will attempt to make a home visit, to assess why the student isn’t coming to school and try to find ways to address the attendance issue.
“(A home visit is) very important to do, because we want to find out through the parents or legal guardians why the child is absent,” McGowan said.
Pitman said a lot of the steps in place are pre-emptive and supportive to avoid taking legal action.
“If the child is not coming to school, juvenile petitions must be filed,” Pitman said.
One of the next steps then would be attending truancy court.
“We have truancy courts in our schools that are based on a problem-solving model,” Pitman said. Those truancy courts look to pinpoint what is causing the repeated absences, and then works to solve the problems. One problem is transportation, and McGowan said because of transportation issues to schools, they’ve created a pilot program to bring the truancy court into certain communities to assist the process. 
“What we do is get out in front of the risk factors of students disconnecting from schools,” Pittman said.
With all of this, ever year DPS looks at the data collected based on attendance to see what is working, and what might not be working. One new program that was started this year brought together parents and students to discuss the importance of attendance and track students who might be at risk for patterns of truancy. These meetings allow schools officials to track attendance habits on a yearlong time frame.
Another addition is having a school resource officer that focuses almost entirely on making contact with families.
McGowan said this resource officer position has helped build bonds with families across the school system. She believes having someone dedicated to making those connections and contacts has helped the school system greatly.
Another factor in combating the high rates of truancy is continuing community involvement with the schools.
“The more parents support their students in coming to school, and the more we partner in healthy ways with families,” Pitman said. “ ... We are partners with parents in this effort.”
Beyond the classrooms having community partnerships like before or after school programs and mentorships helps enforce the need to attend school.
“It’s really a total community effort to ensure our students come to school,” Pitman said.
But, even with community efforts there is always room to grow, and room to escape high truancy rates and ranking 72 out of 115 districts in the state.
“We’re always striving to climb higher,” Pitman said. She also noted a lot of the focus when it comes to truancy is on a child-to-child basis.
“Durham has unique challenges, as does every community. We are poised with a strong commitment,” Pitman said. “It’s the responsibility of the community as a whole — including the schools — to wrap its arms around those families … to support whatever issues are occurring.”