By Susan Riddell
Al Poweleit tries to work with the families in the Grant County school district.
Recently, a kindergarten student at one of the schools had pink eye. School staff called phone numbers on file for the child, but none of them were current. Poweleit then took the child home. The boy’s parents were both home sleeping. They child’s mother told Poweleit they sent the child to school because he already had too many unexcused absences. The mother also informed him they were already scheduled to go to court.
“It’s sad that this child is being set up for failure by the parents,” Poweleit said. “We have to set the tone with the parents when students are younger. The boy depends on his parents, and we don’t want to take the parents to court, but this is what we will do to get that child in school.”
Poweleit is the director of pupil personnel (DPP) for the Grant County school district. His district and many in the state are putting more emphasis into reducing truancy. Working alongside court designated workers (CDW) from the Administrative Office of the Courts’(AOC) Department of Family and Juvenile Services, schools are either trying to deal with the issue or trying to make sure it doesn’t become a problem.
The goal of the school truancy programs is to prevent cases from getting to court.
“CDWs have an interest in preventing truancy because we are committed to preventing delinquency,” said Melissa Goins, a field supervisor with the AOC. “We know that one of the biggest risk factors for court involvement is being truant from school. It is the partnership of the courts and the schools that makes this program so successful.”
Goins added that judicial support also is critical. District judges Elizabeth Chandler and Thomas Funk in Grant County and Robert Yoakum in Bell County are some of the many judges who help the program succeed.
Chris Warren, DPP for the Bell County school district, said the truancy program has paid off in just its first year in the district. Each district retools the AOC program to suit its needs.
“I feel it is a way to meet with targeted students and have a heart-to-heart discussion with them as a group and explain the importance of attending school on a regular basis,” Warren said, “but most of all, it allows us to meet in isolation with each student one-on-one and get to the heart of the reason why the student is truant. Then we can develop individual plans on how to address their attendance issue.”
“My intention is good. I don’t like to take students or parents to court. My intent is to get the student in school to learn. Some parents might say that’s not my business, but the state of Kentucky says otherwise. My business is to get the student in school and to provide an education for them. I hope the parents understand this.” – Al Poweleit, director of pupil personnel, Grant County school district
Warren and others in Bell County were drawn to the AOC truancy program by the hopes of immediate, positive results.
“Everyone works together toward the same goal,” Warren said. “We put together a diverse team that would meet as many needs as possible for different student needs. We have great buy-in and support from all team members.”
Poweleit has the same buy-in in Grant County. He said his goal in using truancy diversion is to get district attendance to 96 or even 97 percent. Currently, the district is at 95 percent.
The district has monthly parent meetings to address policy and expectations, Poweleit said.
Schools send notes home to parents after a student has three unexcused absences and again at five and nine absences. The notes are to inform or remind parents that truancy charges could be filed on the parents. Going to court to get students in school regularly is inevitable, but it’s not how Poweleit likes to spend his days.
“My intention is good. I don’t like to take students or parents to court,” Poweleit said. “My intent is to get the student in school to learn. Some parents might say that’s not my business, but the state of Kentucky says otherwise. My business is to get the student in school and to provide an education for them. I hope the parents understand this.”
Both Poweleit and Warren agree that truancy is an issue that also hits teachers.
Teachers in Grant County will often step in with a student because of familiarity.
“Teachers know the students and have a better rapport,” Poweleit said.
Joining the truancy diversion process, teachers routinely give up planning time to meet with at-risk students. Teachers will address grades and see if they can’t get to the issues behind unexcused absences.
“We also incorporate the middle school and the high school family resource staff,” Poweleit added. “Elementary schools have what they call a ‘posse’ made up of a nurse, counselor, principal and attendance clerk. They take at-risk children and work with the parents. They also focus on getting the kid to want to be at school.”
Poweleit said he’s seen a handful of success stories.
“We’ve had some kids drop out because they don’t want to go to school, but they have soon realized their mistake,” he said. “When they come back, we usually put those kids in the alternative program. We’ve had six or so of those come back and graduate. While those are great, I wish we had more success stories.”
Warren said that one of Bell County’s main goals is to improve on freshman attendance.
Poor freshman attendance is the biggest indicator of whether a student with be truant or drop out, he added.
Once a student becomes truant, grades decline along with self-esteem. It is very hard to turn students around after they start becoming unsuccessful.
“Student success begins with good habits – attendance, behavior and grades,” Warren added. “Successful students become productive community members. We can’t educate a student who is not in school.”