Garner Cleveland Record

Johnston campaign aims to boost student attendance

Each year, thousands of Johnston County students miss more than 16 days of school – the definition of chronic absenteeism, according to social workers.

This past school year alone, 2,485 of the county’s nearly 22,500 K-8 students were chronically absent.

Because thwarting truancy is a major part of their job, the school system’s social workers try to intervene and map strategies for families struggling to get their kids to class. But with just 12 social workers spread over 42 schools, the task can be overwhelming.

So Johnston County’s school social workers are looking for help. They’re launching a campaign this fall to raise awareness and stem the tide of on chronic absenteeism, which they say is a community issue.

Susan Kelly, the district’s lead social worker, said when students are regularly absent or late to class, they are more likely to become high school dropouts.

In addition, a student’s persistent truancy or tardiness can affect the entire classroom, as teachers devoteprecious time to keeping absent kids caught up, Kelly said.

As they prepare to roll out the attendance campaign, dubbed “Show up to move up,” social workers said parents, teachers, staff and administrators can help them reducing chronic absenteeism.

“As much as we would like to spend time with a family, we don’t always get that opportunity,” Kelly said.

Planks in the “Show up to move up” platform include:

▪  Videos for students and parents to get the conversation going.

▪  Encouraging schools to create incentives for maintained or improved attendance.

▪  Getting parents on campus and involved in activities.

▪  Connecting parents and staff to medical providers who can help treat students with illnesses keeping them from school.

▪  Public service announcements through posters and social media.

State law requires children between the ages of 7 and 16 to attend school. But children under 7 who are enrolled in kindergarten through second grade are also subject to the law.

Johnston County schools notify parents each time a student misses school.

After three unexcused absences, someone at the school makes verbal contact with the student’s parent or legal guardian.

After the sixth unexcused absence, the school sends the parents a written letter, letting them know they might be prosecuted for violating the attendance law. Principals also contact school social workers, who can start trying to figure out why a student is missing class.

After 10 unexcused absences, the district tries to determine if the family is making abn effort at home. It also explores its options.

One option is court, though the schools seldom take that route, citing just 36 people with violating the state’s attendance law in 2014.

Keith Gordon, a Johnston County assistant district attorney who handles truancy cases, said the DA’s office takes the school attendance law seriously. However, he doesn’t view convicting a parent as a success.

Rather, he’d prefer to identify the potential for chronic absenteeism early on, alert the parents and take the steps needed to fix the problem.

“If a parent is locked up for 120 days in jail and the kid isn’t going to school, nobody has won,” Gordon said.

That’s one of the reasons the Truancy Intervention Partnership exists. The group, made up of representatives from the DA’s office, school district, Department of Social Services and other agencies, meets with parents of elementary school children flirting with violating the attendance law.

Gordon, who represents the DA’s office at the partnership meetings, said while each case is different, absenteeism often stems from one of situations.

One is the child who suffers from a chronic illness. The other is the parent who is under economic stress and needs help.

“It’s a single parent with one car and several kids, and they are working multiple jobs,” Gordon said. “The kid misses the bus, and there’s no back-up.”

A common thread through through the cases he sees is parents not knowing about the help that exists, Gordon said. That’s where the intervention partnership and planned attendance campaign can come in handy, he said.

Tips for parents include setting a routine, said school social worker Kristen Percy. Something as simple as putting your child’s shoes next to the door can go a long way, she said.

“I don’t know if parents understand how few days it takes to be chronically absent,” Percy said. “It adds up very quickly; you need to be very diligent.”

Other tips for parents include getting involved in school activities, developing relationships with the school nurse and having a back-up plan in case something goes wrong during the morning routine.

Social workers plan to promote those tips when the attendance campaign gets rolling. The kick-off is scheduled for September.

Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104