Howard schools keep students in class by helping them to overcome challenges

Lisa Philip
Contact ReporterHoward County Times
10% of #HoCo students absent from school for more than 15 days, v. 18% of #Baltco & 16% of #MoCo students

A report released earlier this month revealed that the Howard County school system had one of the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism in the region during the 2013-2014 school year.

Ten percent of Howard students were absent from school for more than 15 days, compared to 18 percent of Baltimore County students and 16 percent of Montgomery County students.

Restia Whitaker, coordinator of pupil services for Howard County schools, said the low rate of absenteeism reflects his team's efforts to take a proactive and supportive approach toward habitually truant students.

"The more proactive you are, the more you're not calling [parents of absent students] about consequences but instead calling to assist, and the better you can build that relationship that leads to success," said Whitaker, the system's lead on combating absenteeism.

According to the report, published Sept. 6 by Attendance Works, an initiative aimed at improving school attendance policies and practices, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Everyone Graduates Center, chronic absences from school threaten both student achievement and school completion.

Research demonstrates that missing just 10 percent of school days in a year predicts lower achievement in the elementary grades and class failures in middle school, and can lead to a higher chance of students dropping out of high school.

"When students are disengaged, that often leads to mischievous behavior in the community and making wrong decisions," Whitaker said. "Young people want to be connected to something. We want them to be connected to positive things, to school, to teachers, other positive peers, to counselors."

Within the school system, efforts to prevent and stop chronic absenteeism involve teachers, administrators, counselors and pupil personnel workers, who work with school-based staff to identify and prevent obstacles that negatively impact students' academic success.

"It really is a team approach," said Whitaker, who has been in his current position for three years.

Based on his experiences with students, Whitaker said missing school is often a symptom of hardships that a student is facing at home, such as difficulty transitioning after divorce in the family or grief after the death of a loved one. Absences can also stem from the challenges posed by poverty and homelessness.

The key to dealing with chronic absences, then, is to help families to navigate these hardships, Whitaker said.

"We look at attendance concerns on a case- by-case basis because there are a multitude of factors," he said. "And if we can connect families with services within the community and within the school system, that could help to alleviate attendance issues."

These resources can be as informal as finding a neighbor to help a student in a working, single-parent home get to school in the morning, and as formal as seeking out the assistance of the Department of Children and Family Services in helping a family to work through hard financial times.

Many schools in Howard County begin interventions as soon as a student has missed 5 percent of classroom days, Whitaker said, depending on that student's history.

"A teacher may call home and talk with the parent and see what's going on, and how we can support the family," Whitaker said.

If the absences continue, the student and his or her guardians are brought in to meet with school system staff, including a counselor, pupil personnel worker, administrator, Black Student Achievement Program liaison and/or Hispanic Achievement Program liaison, who try and identify the cause of truancy. These staff members then connect the student and family with help inside and out of the school system.

"It depends on the particular needs of the students and families," Whitaker said.

If the problem continues up to the point where legal action must be taken — under state law, parents can be given jail time or fines for their children's truancy — Project Attend sets into play.

Implemented in Howard County schools in 2002 and modeled on a program in Baltimore County, the program uses partnerships with the state's attorney's office, the Howard County Department of Juvenile Justice and other community organizations to communicate with students the consequences, legal and otherwise, of chronic absenteeism.

"Representatives come in and talk about what they've seen historically in terms of habitual truancy," Whitaker said. "They share with them the possible fines, the jail time that occurs and why it's so important that students don't go down that avenue.

"And we're still hearing from the family and trying to get a grasp of, if there is anything else we can do," he said.

Whitaker said that the program has had a 76 percent success rate, in terms of the number of students who improve their attendance habits.

But he stressed that chronic absenteeism is an ongoing situation in the county that his team continues to examine, by attending conferences and through professional development, and by increasing the number of tools they use to alleviate the issue.

"The needs of our families and the challenges that they are facing are very dynamic and complex," Whitaker said. "We never want to sit back on our laurels and think that we've got all the answers. We have to continue to improve upon this each year, more and more."

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