The Indianapolis Star
April 23, 2007


Star Editorial Board Report: Truancy

A battle with absentees                                                                     

Schools try different methods

Principal Dan Wilson can count on Wayne Township administrators to recruit teachers, maintain the building and meet most of his other needs in leading the Lynhurst 7th and 8th Grade Center. Where the district hasn't been able to help, Wilson admits, is in getting students to show up for class.

The school, like others in the Westside district, offers rewards such as gift certificates, MP3 players, even scooters to encourage students to come to school every day. But that hasn't helped Lynhurst beat back truancy, even on the most important days of the school year. About 200 students -- 16 percent of the school population -- skipped during the ISTEP testing period in October.

Says Wilson: "I would almost describe us as desperate to get (students) in here. And that's how we feel about it. And it's an aggravating problem."

He's not alone.

Wayne Township, a district known for lavish school buildings and successful athletic teams, is beset with student absenteeism. Thousands of students skip school for days at a time, contributing to the district's woeful 62 percent graduation rate:

Wayne's truancy rate is the highest in Marion County: About 31 percent of Wayne's students -- 4,400 children -- skipped 10 or more days of school during the 2005-06 school year. The district has a three-year average truancy rate of 26 percent, higher than every other district in the county over that time.

All of Wayne Township's schools have chronic truancy rates greater than 10 percent: While Ben Davis High School and the district's ninth-grade center have truancy levels on par with other high schools in the county, high absenteeism in the township extends to every grade level. Forty-four percent of Lynhurst students were habitually truant this past school year, giving the school the highest truancy rate among middle schools in Marion County. Wayne Township's other middle school, Chapel Hill, had a 33 percent truancy rate last school year.

At Maplewood Elementary, near Indianapolis International Airport, 31 percent of students were habitually truant last year. In fact, the district's 10 elementary schools had an average truancy rate of 20.1 percent last school year, almost twice that of IPS' elementary schools.

Truancy extends even to kindergarten: High school and middle school students make up 66 percent of the chronic truants in Wayne Township. But even students in the early grades are coming into Marion County's truancy court after missing precious days of learning.

Among the students brought before the court during a hearing this month at Lynhurst was 6-year-old Frankie, a kindergarten student who had missed 12 days of school without an excuse this year. His 8-year-old brother, Angel Jr., also was brought to court after missing 11 days of school.

Their mother, Vanessa Rosa, admits she doesn't get the children to bed until late evening because of her long hours working as an inventory representative. Says Rosa: "I'm almost never home."

The district has made numerous efforts to combat absenteeism. Besides offering incentives to students for perfect attendance, each school has a home-school adviser who keeps tabs on truant students, even visiting their homes. At the middle- and high school levels, teachers are organized into teams to help students from feeling lost. Six of the district's elementary schools also offer full-day preschool, which helps poor parents struggling to find adequate daycare. But the problems remain.

Wayne Township's struggles with truancy are found in other suburban districts in Marion County. Speedway, Pike Township and Decatur Township schools are plagued with chronic truancy rates of 10 percent or higher. Even among districts with low levels of reported truancy, there are pockets of high absenteeism. At Franklin Central High School, the chronic truancy rate has risen from 12 percent to 17 percent over the past three years.

The county's township school districts have become almost as urbanized as IPS and are grappling with the same social and economic challenges. Wayne Township's free- and-reduced lunch population rose from 36 percent to 60 percent between the 1996-97 and 2005-06 school years.

Wayne Township Superintendent Terry Thompson notes that attendance is especially bad on days when weather forces a two-hour delay in opening schools. Half-days used for teacher training also drag down attendance, Thompson says, because families think their children can skip school without penalty.

At the same time, Wayne and other districts fail to use some of the tools available to them.

School attendance officers, under state law, are granted wide powers, including the authority to arrest students for truancy. But because most attendance officers serve as assistant principals responsible for many other duties, those powers are rarely used.

In Wayne Township, home-school advisers are overwhelmed by their caseloads. A dearth of guidance counselors -- a shortage common in the state and nation -- means that students' social and academic problems often aren't addressed. Much of the effort to track attendance falls on teachers and other staff members who have heavy workloads. The result is that sustained efforts to track down truants and investigate why they aren't in school are left undone.

Changing the pattern of poor attendance must start with parents, who must take the time to ensure that their children are in school each day. But school districts, police and the community as a whole also have vital roles to play in holding students and their parents accountable. At a time when a good education has never been more important for economic stability, the high truancy rates that plague Wayne Township and other school districts are intolerable. Missing school may well translate into young people missing opportunities to graduate, land good jobs and secure their future.

Next: Indianapolis Public Schools, the state's largest district, faces its own struggle with truancy.

 

 

2005-06

 

School

Attendance rate (%)

Truancy rate (%)

Ben Davis High School

93

50

Ben Daivs 9th Grade Center

92

45

Chapel Hill 7th and 8th Grade

94

44

Lynhurst 7th and 8th Grade

92

33

Bridgeport Elementary

97

31

Chapel Glen Elementary

95.6

26

Chapelwood Elementary

96

23

Garden City Elementary

95

22

Maplewood Elementary

95

17

McClelland Elementary

96

17

North Wayne Elementary

96.5

14

Rhoades Elementary

96

14

Robey Elementary

97

14

Stout Field elementary

95

12

Westlake Elementary

96.5

11

Source: Indiana Department of Education and Star Editorial Board analysis

 

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Audio: Listen to a short audio clip of mother Kammie McCune discuss the trouble she has in getting her daughter to attend school. Click on Indystar.com/opinion.

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