Kane County Truancy Officer Kari Glenn, right, talks to Cowherd Middle School Assistant Principal Jason Ward about students who are truant on students on Wednesday, October 26, 2011. Kari cover's 16 schools in the Kane County region checking on truancies and trying to get kids to come to school on time, "Kids don't just miss school to miss it," Glenn said, "There is usually another problem." | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Truancy in the Fox Valley
Chronic truancy, especially at the high school level, is one indicator that a student is likely to drop out of school before graduation, so there’s a strong correlation between the percent of students not showing up to class and the drop-out rates of Fox Valley high schools.
But truancy officers say the problem of truancy is not all about high school students anymore. As families experience economic hardship and other stress, elementary and middle school students are also less likely to be in school and learning each day.
No. of Chronically
Truant H.S. Students
No. of Chronically Truant Elementary and Middle School Students
West Aurora 7.7 3.2 266 141
East Aurora 7.5 7.3 256 305
Plano 2.2 2.1 13 15
Oswego 2.2 0.7 46 28
Batavia 1.5 0.6 28 10
Oswego East 1.5 0.4 30 28
Hinckley-Big Rock 1 0 2 0
Yorkville 0.5 0.2 7 27
Sandwich 0.4 1.7 3 8
Waubonsie Valley 0.3 1 10 59
Kaneland 0.3 0.4 4 0
Geneva 0.2 0.4 4 2
Metea Valley 0.1 0.5 1 59
Somonauk 1 0 2 0
Updated: December 7, 2011 8:01AM
They’re mostly teenagers, mostly male, and mostly under the assumption they have something better to do with their days than listen to a teacher drone on about algebra or British Literature.
That’s the conception most people have of students who are chronically truant from school. But it’s not accurate, said Pat Dal Santo, director of alternative programs for the Kane County Regional Office of Education.
“There are as many elementary students as high school students missing classes,” Dal Santo said. “This is really a family problem we’re dealing with here.”
The 2011-12 school year has begun with more stringent laws from Springfield guiding when a child is deemed absent by the state. A student now need only be absent from school 5 percent of the past 180 school days without a valid excuse — illness, religious holidays and family emergencies only, and family vacations don’t count — to be considered chronically truant.
Previously, the standard was 10 percent, or a missed day roughly every two weeks.
On most school districts’ calendars, that means just nine missed days a year now make a student chronically truant. Kane’s truancy officers also look at days since the start of the school year — if a student has missed just one day of school without an excuse by mid-September, they’re referred to an officer.
“It shouldn’t really change much, because we’ve always tried to get referrals early,” said Kari Glenn, a truancy officer with the county who works with students in the East Aurora School District. “But it has made my schools more aware. The good thing is that schools have always been pretty proactive about students at risk.”
That’s particularly important because students at risk of becoming chronically truant also are at risk of dropping out before graduation. Every year, about 1,000 students drop out in Kane County, and in districts around the Fox Valley, the truancy rate mirrors the number of students who drop out.
At East Aurora High School, that was 256 students not showing up to class regularly, or 7.5 percent of students. Some 7.3 percent of the East High student body officially dropped out. At Plano High, 2.2 percent were chronically truant, and 2.1 percent dropped out.
Help for families
Among younger students, Dal Santo said, frequently missing school is an indicator of a struggling family in need of help.
“In this economy, we are seeing an increase in truancy. It amazes me sometimes that kids get to school at all,” she said. “There’s a lot more homelessness, single-parent families, a lot where parents can’t find jobs or they’re working multiple jobs, and kids feel the stress of that.”
So while teenagers are still skipping classes, so too are their younger siblings, whether because of transportation issues, bullying or other social or safety issues at school, or because they’re staying home to watch younger siblings.
“If a family is in crisis, then all the kids in the family are having truancy issues,” Dal Santo said. “We’re in the schools every day, trying to be the positive person who cares that they’re there every day. All the teachers care, but some of these kids just need a little bit of extra encouragement.”
And sometimes, they need more than that. In addition to knocking on doors and talking to parents, the staff at the Kane County Regional Office of Education also sponsors backpack, school supply and Christmas toy drives, and connects families with social service agencies.
Truancy officers such as Glenn are trained to be able to recognize the signs of homelessness and other home and school problems, and address them tactfully to help whole families.
“If a dad loses his job and they have to move in with a brother, it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to be able to deal with that upheaval,” Glenn said. “A lot of transience makes it hard for kids to get to school when you have to re-register and start over so often.”
And in her district in particular, there’s one other barrier for a lot of students — the long walk to school. With no bus service at East Aurora, Glenn said, it can be very difficult to get students out the door and to school on time.
Rather than just calling to harass parents for not dropping their students off at school, truancy officers — there are five in Kane County, one each at East Aurora, West Aurora, Elgin District U46 and Carpentersville District 300, and another covering the remainder of districts in the county — work in the schools individually or in groups with students to help them establish routines for getting to school in the morning, and to address the problems that keep them out of school.
It’s part of a campaign from the Kane Regional Office of Education to be more actively involved in the school, and make truancy a matter for administrators, not just the secretaries who take attendance.
“The principal might choose some students for a group or an individual meeting, because they kind of know who’s late or what’s going on at home, especially at elementary schools, where the kids are very open. Then I have a curriculum I use,” Glenn said.
“I see them every two weeks, and they earn stickers on a calendar. We go over their routine at night and in the morning, and see what we can do at night to make sure they get out the door in the morning on time. A lot of times, it’s a problem with parents’ routines; but if we can get the kids doing what they need to, it helps.”
Often, parents can get more than lessons and stickers — in the worst cases, parents can face legal action for not getting their children to school.
But there have been success stories, too — including one family with children in elementary, middle and high school, all chronically late or missing until Glenn stepped in last school year.
This year, when none of their names showed up on the rolls of late and truant students, she wondered what happened.
“I asked, ‘Did they move?’ Just turns out that now they’re on time,” she said. “The two elementary schoolers were on the perfect attendance list.”