Making it Hard to Skip School at the San Angelo ISD

 

Chris swings open his bedroom door, begins jaunting down the hallway toward the kitchen, his socks sliding on the linoleum floor. It’s about 4 p.m. in the late 1990s and the phone is ringing again. It always does weekdays at 4:00.

As the third long ring begins, the teenager picks up the pace, dodging pieces of furniture on his way to the phone hanging on the kitchen wall. His mother is in the backyard with the cordless, and if he doesn’t pick up the phone before she does, he’s going to be in trouble.

Hastily snatching the receiver from its cradle, Chris breathes hello into the phone and waits a few seconds for the automation to begin before he hangs it back up and immediately erases the evidence from the caller ID. He’s cheated the system again.

In the ‘90s, Midland County employed an automated system to notify parents of unexcused absences in their school district. Back then, the system was fairly easy to cheat, however technological advances and a rigorous hands-on approach to truancy on a local level has kept attendance in San Angelo schools above the state average.

Phone calls, home visits, letters and text notifications are just some of the methods SAISD’s team of school service workers and at-risk coordinators employ to combat truancy on local campuses, says Becky Trojcak, Executive Director of Federal Programs and Acacemic Initiatives at SAISD and head of the at-risk coordinators.

The modus operandi differs depending on the age group, with elementary service workers building relationships with parents, whereas at-risk coordinators in junior and high schools split their time more or less equally between parents and students. Paramount across all age groups, however, is determining the underlying issues for repeated school absences.

“You may find out that that kid is homeless, they don’t have a stable place to live or there’s a family illness going on or there’s some family problems that are causing school to not be a priority, so we are just all in on that trying to fix it any way possible,” said at-risk coordinator Aaron Beck.

However, despite the notion that extreme circumstances lie behind most unexcused absences, the coordinators agree that the most common reason behind truancy is a refusal to attend. Homelessness and death are rare instances that the district doesn’t see that often, Trojcak said.

“I’ll get a call from a parent—and we’re talking elementary-aged kids—and I’m talking to a parent and they say, ‘I can’t get them to go to school,’” school service worker Melissa De La Cruz says. “What’s going to happen when they’re in middle school?”

In the state of Texas school attendance is mandatory for all school-aged children. Absences are only excused when accompanied by a doctor’s or a parent’s note, and a parent may only submit 10 notes per school year for each child. Phone calls do not suffice, and a doctor’s note will not count as one of the 10 parent-written notes.

Once a student has accrued either four unexcused absences in a four-week period or 10 unexcused absences in a six-month period, the school district is required to file on them in municipal court.

Ramifications vary for truancy on a case-by-case basis, and only students ages 12-17 can be charged in court. Otherwise, the parents will receive the charge and punishment. All truancy cases result in a fine and some may include requirements for the parents or students to attend life skills and parenting classes put on by a third party, the suspension of teenager’s drivers licenses and an order to attend school.

“It’s never a surprise,” De La Cruz said of truancy cases that go to court. “It’s not that we haven’t made contact. We don’t just sneak it up and just file it and they don’t have a clue, we’ve usually made several contacts with them.”

Before a child’s case progresses to the courtroom, the at-risk coordinators and service workers are tasked with doing all they can to resolve the issues behind the absences. The team works closely with local churches and social organizations like Rust Street Ministries and the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council of the Concho Valley to address these issues, and handles each case confidentially.

“It’s not just truancy they help you with, it’s tons of things,” Trojcak said. “When I was a principal, my school service worker would help them get electricity or find a refrigerator or if they didn’t have running water—we’ve had that before—they would help them get things that they needed so that they could get them ready and get them to school.”

Clothing, food, bus passes and housewares have also been donated to children at local schools in attempt to better their home situation, and coordinators build relationships with the students and parents as they progress through school.

For several years now, San Angelo has had their at-risk program in place, but it wasn’t until three years ago that it became a state mandate. Not much has changed since then, the coordinators said, but now the forms and steps are regulated and follow a specific plan.

“We actually follow truancy prevention measures,” Beck said. “You have to have a form signed by parent and student acknowledging we know what the law is and we know why it’s important. Before a charge is filed, we do have to send out three-day, six-day and nine-day letters.”

In addition to the letters and personal visits, the school district provides home access, an online portal where parents can log in and monitor their student’s grades and attendance. Far from the days of dial-up internet where notifications were limited to emails and chat rooms, parents can now set up text message alerts through home access, which will notify them when their child has been marked absent or if their grades drop below a specified threshold.

Lake View High School also has an automated calling system in place, which with the advent of cell phones has both encountered success and further issues in alerting parents to absences.

“On the secondary level, we have kids trying to put their personal numbers as the contact that way they’re getting the phone calls,” Beck said. Another issue is the prevalence of burn phones, where parents may use a pre-paid number for only a short amount of time and fail to update their contact information. Keeping this information up-to-date and accurate is integral to maintaining lines of communication with the school, he said.

Texas has a 90 percent attendance rule, which equates to no more than 18 unexcused absences per school year. Students that miss 18 or more days may fail a grade and be required to stay behind.

“…at that point it goes before a committee of the principal, the counselor and the parent,” De La Cruz said. “All of them get together at the end of the school year and figure out what’s best for the student.”

The school year starts on Aug. 25, and in preparation the district is encouraging all parents to provide up-to-date contact information. Should you be unable to take your child to school, the say, notify your at-risk coordinator or school service worker. 

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