August 30, 2014

Two-thirds of District 189 students are chronically truant

Three metro-east school districts -- East St. Louis District 189, Brooklyn District 188 and Cahokia School District 187 -- have the highest percentages of chronically truant students in the metro-east.

Sixty-six percent of students in East St. Louis are chronically truant, 37.8 percent in Brooklyn and nearly 27 percent of students in Caholia, according to the 2013 Illinois School Report Card, the latest information available from the state.

By comparison, the Chicago Public School District has a truancy rate of 31.9 percent. The state average is 9.8 percent. The average truancy rate for St. Clair County school districts is 7.1 percent.

District 187 employs seven truancy officers assigned to different schools and/or grade levels to help combat truancy. Four officers are assigned to Cahokia High School, and two truancy officers are assigned to elementary and middle schools throughout the district.

Superintendent Art Ryan said the cost associated with the truancy officers is covered by grants the district receives and federal money. He said the truancy officers will often visit the homes of truant students.

"They go out to see what's going on," Ryan said. "One of the problems we have is in a lot of the cases parents don't call or contact us when their child is sick."

Truancy officers have helped the district, according to Ryan. "There's some families who are more aware and more conscious of trying to call in if their child is out," he said.

Like Cahokia, East St. Louis District 189 has nine staff members who handle attendance for the district including three truancy officers, five homeless liason/intervention specialists and a social worker, according to Fred Clarke, an official with District 189.

"Truancy officers are required to follow up with students who are approaching truant or chronically truant," he said. "They schedule home visits and work with the parents and students to remove any barriers that are keeping their child out of school."

District 189 truancy officer John Thornton described his job as challenging. He currently works at the district's Ninth Grade Center and the Alternative High School. He's worked as a truancy officer for District 189 the last 10 years.

Every day, he reviews attendance sheets for both schools to determine which students are absent. He then tries to make contact with a parent of the student on the phone. If he's not able to reach them or the number is disconnected, Thornton makes visits to the homes of truant students. He averages 10 to 12 home visits every school day.

"The best way to get it done is a home visit," he said.

Thornton enjoys his job and getting young people and their parents to understand the importance of education. "Without education, you have nothing," he said. "I want to show young people how important education is."

The definition of chronically truant changed in 2011, and now, Ryan said more students are considered truant.

Previously, students could have up to 18 unexcused absences or 10 percent of the 180-day school year before they were considered truant under Illinois law.

Now, students are considered truant if they have nine or more unexcused absences.

Prior to the law change, 7 percent of students in District 187 were considered truant, according to the 2011 Illinois School Report Card.

Likewise, the percent of chronically truant students has increased at District 189 over the last several years. In 2009, 18 percent of students were chronically truant. In 2010 and 2011, it rose to about 25 percent and was at 44 percent in 2012.

"We will continue to reach out to parents to ensure that whatever barriers may be preventing students from attending school are addressed so that our students can focus on what's most important -- achieving and excelling in school," Clarke said.

Belleville District 201's truancy rate was below the state average rate at 3.4 percent for fiscal year 2013.

Superintendent Jeff Dosier said the district partners with its feeder school districts and employs two truancy officers. The districts that feed into District 201 include Belle Valley 119, Belleville 118, Grant 110, Harmony-Emge 175, High Mount 116, Signal Hill 181, Whiteside 115 and Wolf Branch 113.

It makes senses for the districts to share the cost of truancy officers, because Dosier said truant students may have younger or older siblings.

The truancy officers help by making personal contact with the parents, according to Dosier. "We can actually send a truancy officer out to the house to see what is going on," he said.

In Madison County, Collinsville District 10, Edwardsville District 7, Highland District 5 and Triad District 2 all have chronic truancy rates below 4 percent, according to the 2013 Illinois School Report Card.

Nine percent of Granite City School District students are considered chronically truant.

District 9 Superintendent James Greenwald said the district created a new position this school year -- a student services interventionist, who oversees truancy as well as homelessness within the district.

"We feel in a district of our size both of those needs need to be addressed," he said. "This is a new position with the same duties our two full-time truancy officers had previously. We streamlined that into one very important job this school year."

Greenwald explained the staff member conducts visits to schools and homes of chronically truant students and develops intervention plans.

The student services interventionist is funded with the district's general fund and federal funding.

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