At Lakeland Union High School, our absenteeism rates used to be substantially higher than state averages. Year after year, someone—usually an assistant principal or dean of students—was always working hard on addressing our truancy cases. Despite our efforts, nothing we did dramatically affected the number of students habitually missing school. To break this cyclical pattern, our administrative team decided to take a different approach to curb attendance problems.
The Truancy Task Force
In 2010, we created the Truancy Task Force, which brought together individuals from local schools, county court systems, county social services, private counseling firms, law enforcement officials, and local mental and physical health professionals. We realized that all of us were working in isolation on the same problem of decreasing truancy rates. It was time to join forces, get all of the stakeholders on the same page, and work in collaboration on the complex issues surrounding student truancy.
The Truancy Task Force started off meeting two times a month. School leaders, judges, prosecuting attorneys, social workers, counselors, health care providers, and school resource officers used this regular time to plan attendance interventions for our truant students. One of the biggest benefits was that everyone learned what each area does to address chronic absenteeism. Schools learned what judges’ philosophies were on truancy intervention, judges learned what steps schools took before a student ended up in court, and county and private social service providers engaged in discussions about how they could help.
Systematic Interventions Through Truancy Report Centers
When we realized the many individual efforts all of us were making, we collaborated and created Truancy Report Centers to provide attendance interventions in a robust, systematic way. Each of our county’s schools house a report center. Here’s how it works:
- Students in truancy court are ordered by the judge to attend a report center.
- Each report center is open Monday through Friday from 3:45 p.m.–5:45 p.m.
- A student comes to a report center every day for varying amounts of time based on their specific academic situation. For instance, if a student has one failing grade, they may only be assigned 30 minutes. If failing four courses, they would be assigned the entire two hours.
- At a report center, students have access to one of our teachers (paid for by Oneida County) who help them catch up on missed academic work.
- Students have access to counseling services provided by either private service providers or the appropriate county agency. These counseling services include alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA), anger management, mental health, and others on an individual basis.
- Report center educators submit a weekly report to school administration that monitors students’ academic progress, work ethic, attitude, and behavior during report center sessions. These reports are shared with the court system(s) at regular truancy court review hearings with the student, parent(s), and school present.
- Once a student’s attendance and grades improve to a satisfactory level (judge’s discretion based on school’s recommendation), they are released from the program. Some students are ordered to attend the report center for months; others only attend for a few weeks.
Effective Attendance Interventions
From a school perspective, the Truancy Report Center program is much more effective than traditional truancy consequences. Students receive the academic, behavioral, and emotional support they need that addresses the root causes of their truancy issues. In addition, our local truancy court jurisdictions (we have students in Oneida County, Lac du Flambeau Tribal Court, and Vilas County) have found that funding the Truancy Report Center is less expensive than funding more traditional truancy court consequences (such as secure detention).
As the Truancy Task Force has evolved, the delivery of attendance intervention has become increasingly swift and entirely more effective. Currently, the Task Force is not only collaborating regularly on how to better serve our students and families in the truancy system, but we are also developing and implementing more proactive strategies to avert truancy cases before they arise.
Have our collaborative efforts to combat chronic absenteeism and student truancy been worth it? Absolutely. When we started the Truancy Task Force in 2010, the student absenteeism rate was 23.2 percent. In 2018, this rate is now only 6.45 percent. We are proud of the work we have done and even prouder of our students who have overcome the challenges in their lives that were affecting their school attendance.
Collaboration between agencies working on behalf of kids to improve attendance can start small. Get in contact with your local truancy jurisdiction. Once the conversation is started about how to better serve kids, keep inviting others to the table. What other strategies have been effective for increasing attendance and curbing truancy at your school?
Justin Szews is the principal at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua, WI. Justin was the 2018 Wisconsin Assistant Principal of the Year and a finalist for the 2018 National Assistant Principal of the Year.