Tackling truancy

Jul. 10, 2014 @ 05:29 PM

If it was sobering to learn from a recent report that Durham Public Schools had five high schools and two middle schools with attendance rates in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s schools, it is at least encouraging to read of the steps the district is taking to address the issue.

The schools have been ramping up those efforts, too, so there’s hope that our results will continue to improve.

That said, it is not clear that the schools and at least as important, the broader community, have mounted, to use an analogy familiar in these parts, a full-court press on the problem.

All of us – school administrators, police, parents, leaders in the faith, civic and business communities – have a stake in lowering truancy rates. Students who consistently miss school for no acceptable reason are far more likely to fall behind their peers. As they miss important material, grades plummet, the likelihood of failure rises and dropping out becomes a probable response.

Those students are almost certain to be among the 20 percent who fail to graduate, dimming their prospects for gainful employment and financial stability in adulthood.

One of the most innovative efforts the schools have made to keep students in school – and off the streets – is truancy court. While the idea has been in use here since the early 2000s, just within the past couple of years has it expanded to every elementary school. That expansion in and of itself may pay dividends in raising our attendance-rate standing in the state.

“At the elementary level, in particular, truancy court can have a larger impact on the student, in part because parental responsibility is greater during the elementary years and the parent is the child's greatest influence in the primary years,” Durham lawyer (and school board candidate earlier this year) Lisa Gordon-Stella wrote in a February 2013 article for the N. C. Bar Association’s dispute resolution section.

“It is believed that starting truancy court at the elementary level will help students and parents develop healthy attitudes about school that will follow them through middle and high school,” Gordon-Stella wrote. “The goal is to identify the underlying cause of the truancy, discuss the impact truancy has on the student’s grades, and put together a plan to address the issues.”

DPS is fielding a number of other tactics to reduce truancy, so the problem is hardly unaddressed.

Jim Struit, gang reduction strategy member with the Criminal Justice Resource Center reminds us why we should as a community care, beyond just concern for the future of the students who disengage from school.

“Kids that are truant from school are typically unsupervised,” Struit said in June when the study was released. And that situation, he said, is “ripe for criminal activity.”

Many Durham youth have enough temptations toward gangs or other criminal activity. Clearly, we can reduce those temptations by keeping them in school.