For Saquan Centry, going to school was almost optional when he was in elementary school.
Not because his mother didn’t care, but because she didn’t always know when he wasn’t going. The single mom worked early in the morning before her son went to school.
Centry, now 17, was responsible for waking himself up on time. When he didn’t feel like waking up early enough to catch the bus, he would skip school. One year he missed 40 days.
“I would just go back upstairs to watch cartoons,” he said.
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Durham Public Schools ranks 72nd out of North Carolina’s 115 school districts in attendance. A gang assessment released in June found seven DPS schools were in the least-attended 10 percent of schools in the state. The assessment was three-year average ending in the 2012-13 school year.
“I’ve had students that show up five times a semester,” said Holly Jordan, an English teacher who has taught at Hillside High School for nine years.
To battle truancy the district set up truancy courts at each school, contracting with the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center in Durham.
When a student has three unexcused absences, a teacher or the school calls the parent and makes a referral to the school social worker. When six days are missed, the principal mails a “six day letter” to the parent and the student is referred to school-based truancy court.
If 10 days are missed the principal and district attorney mail a certified “10 day letter” to the parent. An attendance profile is generated and the parent or guardian is subject to prosecution under state laws.
Failing to comply with school attendance rules, including excessive tardiness or early pick ups, can result in a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and neglect. It is a misdemeanor and punishable by up to 120 days in prison and a $500 fine.
“You can’t teach them if they are not in school,” DPS Superintendent Bert L’Homme said. “I think one of the best things that is happening is the truancy court, where it really ensures that students take responsibility for their attendance.
“Certainly I want every mom and dad to be responsible for their child’s attendance, but there comes a time when a young man and young woman get old enough that they become responsible,” he added.
The point of truancy court is to find out why students are missing class and to help parents get their child to school before they can be prosecuted.
Early results are promising, school officials say.
The truancy courts served 1,096 students in its two years. In elementary schools 68 percent of students improved attendance; in middle school, 48 percent; and in high school, 55 percent.
Parents are the most important part in ensuring students come to school, said Debbie Pittman, assistant superintendent for student, family and community services.
“In the younger years we need to establish healthy attendance patterns of kids coming to school,” she said. “And in middle and high school when a student starts skipping class or not coming to school for unexcused reasons, those are important and critical symptoms that need to get addressed quickly because a student can over time disconnect from school, then start to have academic challenges, then start failing classes and often times that goes along with (disruptive) behavior starting to manifest at school.”
Patterns of truancy start as early as first grade, and chronic truancy in second and third grade increases the likelihood of dropping out by 15 percent, according to a Duke University study.
Reason for truancy
Lisa Gordon Stella, Truancy Court director, said absences she sees are often due to parents not understanding attendance policies, students and parents with mental health challenges, discouraged students struggling in school and single parents working late hours.
“I’ve seen a mother that worked an overnight shift and her daughter would stay with a relative in another part of Durham. When she picks her daughter up in the morning, if she is late because of her job, her child might get to school late or may not get to school at all,” Stella said. “Parents who are struggling to make ends meet face a lot of challenges and their children are facing challenges too.”
Grace Marsh, a truancy court judge at Githens Middle School, said some girls end up caring for younger siblings while their parents work. She also sees situations like Centry’s where parents must go into work before their child’s bus arrives.
“When kids get behind because of absences or truancy then we’re talking about looking at these kids for being statistics of dropping out of school,” Marsh said.
Students are able to drop out of school at 16 but must wait until they are 18 to re-enroll by themselves, Marsh said. Some students who realize they made a mistake lose more than a year of learning.
That was the case for Centry, who dropped out at 16, after he was suspended for 60 days for bringing a weapon to school. Centry says he was framed by a boy he thought was a friend. He enrolled in Achievement Academy, a nonprofit that helps high school dropouts get their GED.
“I always wanted to make something of myself,” Centry said. “And I couldn’t just wait.”
His schools would call his mother to report her son’s absenteeism. But, because of her work schedule – she takes care of his grandmother, aunt and her daughter – there was little she could do but tell him to do better.
“It’s a struggle because basically my mom is the only one in the house to pay the rent,” Centry said.
One truancy officer
The Durham Public Schools has one truancy officer for its 45 schools.
Truancy officer Theresa Kelly attends truancy courts, visits schools, homes, reaches out to parents and students and brings students who have skipped back to school.
As she walked down the halls of the School for Creative Studies, she stopped to talk to some sixth and eighth graders changing classes. She introduced herself and asked them how they were doing in school.
“I do it for the children,” she said. “A lot of theses kids are crying out for love. They are crying out for attention because they aren’t getting it at home.”
Capt. Raheem Aleem of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office said nothing will change until parents take responsibility for truant children. He and Kelly said some are just not involved in their child’s lives.
“You can put a law enforcement officer on every corner,” Aleem said.
School board Chairwoman Heidi Carter, however, has recommended the board and superintendent talk about adding truancy officers.
“I think it is something we should discuss as a community: would it be a beneficial use of money to hire additional truancy officers?” she said. “It just seems that one is not enough.”