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Duluth schools sharpen focus on attendance

Amy Starzecki spent a morning this spring visiting with the principal of Piedmont Elementary.

The Duluth schools assistant superintendent looked out the window, noticing kids getting dropped off 20 minutes after the day had begun.

She was surprised, she said, but the principal told her it was typical. Starzecki later noticed the same thing happening at other elementary schools.

"Kids need to be in school all day, every day," she said. "Missing even an hour in the morning can have a huge impact."

Starzecki is working to draw more attention to the importance of attendance, not only because it will be required under new federal education law, but because she knows it's related to graduation rates, achievement gaps and how students feel about their school.

"Our focus on attendance has to be front and center moving into next year," she said recently.

No matter the caliber of support systems and class instruction, if students aren't coming, they aren't learning, she said.

The district's chronic absenteeism rate — defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year — is 15 percent when considering its traditional schools, and jumps to 18 percent when including its non-traditional programs. Duluth's graduation rate is 74 percent.

Duluth schools monitor attendance, sending letters home to families after three unexcused absences and then again at seven. Procedures vary between elementary, middle and high schools if problems persist beyond that, but typically administrators meet with students and their families and create attendance contracts. Often counselors and other support staff are involved. The middle schools and Denfeld have the Truancy Action Project in their buildings, which works with students on attendance. Some cases lead to county involvement, and include mediation and truancy court for older students.

When Lincoln Park Middle School's assistant principal Jacob Hintsala meets with families and kids about attendance issues, he tries to find out why kids are late or not coming to class.

It could mean providing an alarm clock, transportation or a DTA bus pass for missing the bus.

"I have literally gone and picked up kids," Hintsala said.

As much as possible, students with attendance issues who need a ride get delivered to school by its police liaison officer or the Truancy Action Project advocate.

The idea is to pinpoint "what they need in order to be successful," Hintsala said, which might mean counseling or some other kind of care.

Few students with attendance issues make it to the county's Student Attendance Review Board, said Rachel Jackson, assistant principal at Ordean East Middle School, but when they do, mental health is usually playing a role.

County involvement

Amy Lukasavitz, the St. Louis County attorney involved in its attendance review board, dealt with 120 referrals this year, with 24 kids ending up in truancy court. Kids age 12 and older who attend southern St. Louis County schools are served, and the majority of those students this year were from the Duluth school district. Students younger than 12 are served through a different process that deals with educational neglect.

Lutheran Social Service and Men as Peacemakers offer mediation and restorative practices. Court is the last resort. Referred kids have missed anywhere from 20 class periods to 300 or more, Lukasavitz said, and the majority of kids are showing up at school but aren't entering the classroom.

"They know school is a safe place for them," Lukasavitz said. "They get their lunches, they get socialization, and it's warm. It's the learning part that is more difficult for a wide variety of reasons: mental health, chemical dependency issues, trauma, kids who are not medicated and should be."

Hintsala said students avoid class a number of ways: walking the halls and visiting various support staff — like counselors — throughout the day; hiding in bathrooms and loitering in locker bays until they are shooed to class.

Students' parents or guardians are involved in the truancy program, and so are social workers, probation officers and school employees. Digging into why a student is chronically absent could reveal a need for health insurance, therapy or special education services, and the county and school district help with that.

Expectations are realistic, Lukasavitz said, based on what some kids have endured in their lives.

"Sometimes going from 130 missed class periods to 30 is like, wow, we've succeeded," she said.

Building relationships

More programs in place at the elementary level would help alleviate chronic absenteeism, said Ordean East's Jackson.

"They don't come to sixth grade with chronic truancy. It's been going on awhile," she said.

Myers-Wilkins principal Elisa Maldonado said she wished her school had more resources, like a truancy officer, to target absenteeism. A long-time full-service community school, it does have programs that can help with underlying issues, like access to health care or insurance.

The elementary school has the highest poverty and chronic absenteeism rates in the district.

School staff understand that basic needs must be met to learn, so kids who come late to school are still fed if they missed breakfast or lunch, or get a nap if they didn't sleep the night before, Maldonado said. She recently read about a school where one student need was clean clothes, so a washer and dryer set was purchased. She's hoping to find her own creative solutions to removing school attendance barriers.

The school will take part in a program that sends teachers into the homes of willing families to help build stronger relationships and learn about specific needs. A national program, Lincoln Park Middle School started it within the district, and is now training teachers at other schools.

Denfeld assistant principal Marcia Nelson said building relationships with students, so they trust school staff enough to tell them what's going on, is key in helping kids in bad situations. Policy may say you lose course credit with nine unexcused absences, she said, but a student's situation can make a difference. Someone playing video games until 3 a.m. and sleeping in will be dealt with differently than a student whose parent is in the hospital with cancer, leaving the student to care for siblings.

To say to that student, "'I'm sorry, our policy says this, so you've lost credit' ... that's not right," Nelson said.

Starzecki wants to offer students incentives — like drawings for gift certificates — for being at school on a monthly basis, dropping the idea of the typical yearly "perfect attendance."

Research shows punishment isn't effective in addressing chronic absenteeism, she said.

"We should always be looking for opportunities for students to earn credit. I would not want to close the door on a kid ... it's the hammer, and the hammer doesn't work," she said.

The hope, said Nelson, is to get kids to a place where they feel like school "is a good place to be, that 'people care about me.' It really takes a village."

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