With two months left in the school year, the Corsicana school district has already shot past the number of truancy cases filed all last year.

In 2005-06, the district filed 370 court cases on students who weren’t attending. As of March 9, the district had filed 409 cases, and anticipates filing 493 by the end of 2006-07.

“We had a 25.4 percent increase of filings from 2004-05 to 2005-06, and based on numbers this year, we’re looking at a 64 percent increase this year, based on preliminary numbers,” said Paul Ross, attendance coordinator for the Corsicana Independent School District.

Experts who work with students say the reasons for the increases are varied, and none are simple, but three trends stand out from the typical stories of parent and student apathy, abuse, neglect and failure:

• Truancy has been steadily increasing for the past five years in CISD.

• The standardized test, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and the pressure to get students passing it, has more students skipping tutoring classes meant to help them.

• New reporting rules could be bringing problems to light faster than in the past.



Everyone loses

Truancy figures kept by the school district show the number of students getting in trouble for tardies and absences has gone up each year since 2002-03. It’s tightly tracked because the district’s mission is to educate children in the community, and because each absence costs the district funding.

The district receives money from the state based on how many students it educates each day, the Average Daily Attendance. The state pays on average $35 per student, per day, said Debbie Radcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

To put the amount lost into perspective, each court filing represents at least 3 unexcused absences or tardies in a 4-week period; or 10 days in a six-month period. This year, the district has lost between $45,000 and $150,000, which could have been spent maintaining buildings, paying teachers, buying gas for school buses, or much-needed materials such as paper, markers and computers.



TAKS truants

The bulk of the truancy problems this year are coming from Corsicana High, and one reason for the sharp increase in absences at the high school could be something as simple as the new TAKS remediation classes.

Students who didn’t pass one or more parts of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills are required to take tutoring classes, which are first thing in the morning before regular classes begin. Early morning tutoring is an incentive to study and pass the test, school administrators argued, and it frees up a period during the day, so students can earn more credit classes.

Unfortunately, some students interpret the early morning, non-credit class to mean the tutoring is optional. It’s not.

Because it’s a required course for students who didn’t pass TAKS, the students who skip it are counted tardy for the day, and after a number of tardies or absences, are considered truant.

“I’ve seen more kids this year just skipping the TAKS class,” said Judge Connie Mayfield, Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace, which handles truancy cases. “I had one docket in here where half the docket cases are those skipping the TAKS class.”



Legal woes

A docket case means a parent has already received at least one letter, and the problem has continued. Usually, after 10 absences in six months, the school files with the court, which issues a subpoena for both the parent and the student to appear in court. The court costs for the family are $171, which can’t be worked off with community service, Mayfield said.

“And that does not include a fine. That’s just the court costs,” she said.

The risk of run-ins with the law used to be an incentive to go to school, but not anymore, Ross said.

“Apparently, in times past it’s been fairly effective,” the district’s truancy officer explained. “But the vast majority of them are new cases. Many of them are just because they haven’t turned in their excuses, or followed procedures in the student handbook. In the high school, they don’t want to go, or are excessively tardy and it gets marked as an absence instead of a tardy.

“It’s just not using very good judgment, especially on the part of the high school students,” Ross summed up.



Changing rules

Some potential laws in the pipeline in Austin could dramatically change the landscape in terms of truancy. One bill, HB 566, would require a student who turns 18 to continue the school year already begun. Filed by Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville (from southeast Texas, near Houston), the bill was written to keep students from dropping out early, Hamilton said in a phone interview from Austin.

“Basically, some schools in our area were just having high drop-out rates,” Hamilton explained. “The state counts against you for funding when they do it, and the kids were dropping out with no penalties.”

Of the 18,290 drop-outs in Texas in 2004-05, one-third were 18 or older, he said.

The bill Hamilton introduced would make 18-year-olds subject to the same legal penalties if they drop out in mid-school year.

“It’s probably not the perfect plan, but I think it’s a plan that will keep folks in school,” he said. “Even if we could only keep 10 percent of them in school and getting that diploma, they’ll be much better off for the rest of their lives, and the community will be, as well.”

The drop-out rate, which is estimated to be between 12 percent and 33 percent of all public school students in Texas, is considered more of a problem than truancy, but students who lose enough time in school are more likely to drop-out. Without high school diplomas, the former students can’t earn as much income, which hurts them, their families and the community, which often bears the burden for supporting them. Lacking resources and income, drop-outs are also statistically more likely to run into legal problems, and more likely to go to prison.

“If they drop out mid-year at 18, they aren’t going to get that diploma,” Mayfield said. “It’s a benefit to the community and the child if he gets that high school diploma.”



Excuses, reasons

It can take weeks of monitoring before her court workers figure out why some students skip, Mayfield said. They’ve uncovered easily resolved issues — eyeglasses, toiletries, literacy tutoring, transportation — and complex reasons, such as sexual abuse or family economics.

“For me, it’s trying to find out what it is that I can fix,” Mayfield said. “I’m not just issuing fines. It’s about trying to fix whatever is interfering in their educations.”

The reasons for truancy can also vary with the age of the students, according to educators and court workers. At the elementary level, the finger is typically pointed towards the parents.

“At the elementary schools, it’s usually from tardies, and that’s a parental thing,” Mayfield said. “Those children don’t get themselves up, and get themselves to school. We see more self-truancy at Collins and the high school.”

At Collins, the remedy can be ridiculously simple, said Principal Sharron McDonald.

“I find that most of our unexcused absences are the result of either parents not knowing to send notes, or students forgetting to bring them to the office,” McDonald said. “Parents think if they sign the student out, or call us to tell us the child is sick, that we do not need a note. However, the result is an unexcused absence.”

Ross echoed the message: Parents count.

“I don’t think many people understand what the state law says,” the truancy officer said. “There’s too many parents that don’t have the parenting skills to address these attendance problems from their own family standpoint.”

“If they were aware of the magnitude of this maybe they could help us out and intensify their efforts from the home standpoint,” Ross said. “It’s becoming a serious problem.”

—————

Janet Jacobs may be contacted via e-mail at jacobs@corsicanadailysun.com



Numbers of CISD students filed with the court as truant:



School ‘02-’03 ‘03-04 ‘04-05 ‘05-06 ‘06-07

Bowie 4 24 16 18 2*

Carroll 10 10 2 3 3*

Fannin 14 8 10 0 3*

Navarro 5 7 10 1 2*

Drane 7 4 7 4 3*

Collins 29 31 60 71 41*

CHS 170 175 171 273 359*

Totals 239 259 276 370 413*



*As of March 9, 2007



Source: Corsicana Independent School District



Proposed truancy laws:



A number of bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature this session to address truancy, including one to force students who turn 18 during the school year to complete the year.

• HB 566 would require students already enrolled in school to complete the year, even if they turn 18 in mid-semester. The bill is designed to ensure students get their high school diplomas.

• HB 2594 would give law enforcement officers the authority to take a student to school if they see one out and about.

• HB 2407 would create a grant program to help school districts address truancy and drop-out rates.



Source: 80th Texas Legislature

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