Truancy tests RCSD's resolve 

The Rochester school district kicked off the new school year with what officials say is a serious crackdown on attendance and truancy. The new effort, which is loosely based on a program used successfully in other New York school districts, will involve the broader community.

Officials say that poor attendance and high truancy rates are at least partly to blame for the Rochester district's consistently low graduation rate, and there have been many unsuccessful efforts over the years to address these issues. Many students miss so much instruction that they cannot perform at grade level in core subjects without remedial help.

But solving the problems has been extremely difficult, and efforts are often complicated by the district's shoddy recordkeeping.

Some schools have students on the rolls who no longer live within the district. And officials recently discovered that a sophisticated attendance software program automatically records students as present, unless teachers manually change the status.

Mayor Tom Richards says getting accurate attendance numbers is crucial to the credibility of the district's new truancy program.

"We're never going to get people to help us and participate if we're not credible," he says.

Truancy is generally defined as 20 or more unexcused or unexplained absences in a school year. Anita Murphy, the Rochester district's deputy superintendent, says that on any given day, about 3,000 students or 10 percent of the district's nearly 30,000 students may be absent. And she says that as many as 50 percent of students may be truant over the course of a school year, meaning they may have missed at least 20 days for unexplained reasons.

The new program is loosely based on what district officials call the "Yonkers Model," a comprehensive approach to chronic truancy designed by Karl Bertrand, president of Program Design and Development, a consulting firm to public schools and municipalities. Rochester officials met with Bertrand, who provided them with a report showing dramatic results in the Yonkers and Mt. Vernon school systems.

The Yonkers Model assumes that school districts cannot solve truancy problems on their own, and that city and county services are integral to the approach. Before launching the Rochester program, school officials met with social service providers, as well as county and city officials, says Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.

Rochester's new program initially focuses on grades K to 3 to give officials time to develop it, and to quickly correct any problems that arise.

The first step is to implement careful and consistent attendance-taking, Murphy says. Specific steps will be taken when students miss school. For instance, after a student misses three consecutive days, a letter will go home to his or her parents. After five days, district officials will visit the student's home. Intervention continues to increase with the goal of finding out why the student isn't in school.

"The whole point is figuring out what the problem is and getting kids the help they need," Murphy says. "The United Way is going to provide us with a list of agencies that can provide services to families once we've figured out the problem."

Another option, though Superintendent Bolgen Vargas says it's a last resort, is contacting Child Protective Services when parents neglect to send their children to school.

An important note: the district's new procedures, called the "Attendance and Absenteeism Rules and Responsibility" have not yet been reviewed by the school board, so some steps may change.

Some members of the school board are concerned about involving CPS in the new truancy effort. A program that is perceived as too punitive or as criminalizing parents or students may not succeed, says board member Van White, because many minority communities are already skeptical of these institutions.

But Murphy says criminalization is not the intent of the program.

"The whole point is to get kids to come to school, not criminalize them," she says.

Still, district officials, including teachers are required by law to report any form of child neglect or abuse to CPS. That includes educational neglect, which in the Yonkers Model can trigger an investigation by the agency. Rochester's school officials have historically been reluctant to use this approach.

That's partly because some parents may simply not understand how important attendance is, especially for students in the lower grades, says Superintendent Vargas. Vargas was one of the state's superintendents who pushed the Legislature to make kindergarten attendance mandatory in New York. The law was approved earlier this year.

Children need to be reading at grade level by the time they reach third grade, Vargas says. Poor attendance in the lower grades impedes developing reading skills, he says, and worse, it establishes a pattern of poor attendance.

But successful truancy reduction programs like the Yonkers Model rely heavily on taking forceful action sooner, with continuous follow-up on students and their families once the problem has been identified. The programs require rigorous management and coordination between many organizations, which board member White says has been a problem for the district in the past.

"People live and work in silos," he says. "The walls are built on things like confidentiality that say they can't communicate with the people working in other silos."

White recalls the failure of a previous truancy effort between the district and the city.

"We had a truancy resolution back with [former superintendent] Manny Rivera for spending $1 million with the Rochester Police Department," White says. But the plan got bogged down in a dispute over who paid for the police officers, he says, and a confrontation over the Maintenance of Effort Law. The MOE requires the city to provide the district with about $119.2 million in annual funding.

And White questions the district's management capabilities, since the problems with attendance and truancy have been known for years. He says he began hearing parents' complaints more than a decade ago: a child hadn't been to school for days, but nobody from the district contacted the parents to let them know.

"This is not rocket science," White says. "They've got 'X' number of kids who aren't in their seats. This is not about poverty, and it's not a matter of personnel or technology availability. The problem is the job isn't getting done."

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