When students go AWOL, this team aims to find out why

In the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the title character took a day off from his suburban Chicago high school, engaged in all sorts of slapstick mayhem and repeatedly thumbed his nose at his feckless school principal.

The hijinks of Bueller and his friends were hilariously funny, but chronic absenteeism — what used to be called “truancy” — is no laughing matter. It often results in poor academic performance, dropping out before finishing high school and dead-end jobs. Moreover, it is often a symptom of deeper educational, emotional and social issues.

Shelton public schools recently launched a new initiative, the District Attendance Review Team (DART). Headed by Assistant Superintendent Lorraine Rossner, it works to combat poor attendance — and early reports indicate that it’s working.

The team reviews each instance of poor attendance at the elementary, intermediate and high school level, analyzing its root causes and developing workable solutions. Working with Rossner are others from the district’s central staff, the principals of each school, and representatives from police and state agencies.

“Of necessity, our team primarily focuses on high school students because they are often at the danger point with respect to the credits they need to graduate,” Rossner said at last month’s Board of Education meeting. “But attendance issues can also affect kids at the middle school and elementary school levels.”

At that Board of Education meeting, Rossner reported on the results of two meetings between the team, high school students and their parents or guardians.

“These were probably the most emotional meetings I’ve ever had as an administrator,” said Rossner. “The parents were telling us that they’ve tried so much and they don’t know what to do, and the kids were there pouring out their hearts … giving us clues to the real reason they are having problems getting to school.”

Rossner and other team members came away from those two meetings with newfound confidence that they will be able to improve district attendance. The presence of parents/guardians at those meetings is vital, she said.

“Without parental support and cooperation, it’s a big break in the chain,” Rossner said.

Few parents are intentionally neglectful, said Bobbi Tar, a teammate of Rossner’s and the district’s youth outreach coordinator.

“Parents contact us for help all the time,” said Tar. “A wide range of factors contribute to a kid missing school, even the parents’ work schedules come into play.”

To look for ways to improve, Tar first analyzed the attendance policies of school districts adjacent to Shelton. She then identified their best practices, particularly ones that would work to Shelton’s benefit.

Among the key changes in policy, the team exclude long-term illnesses from the district’s chronic absenteeism reports.

“Long-term illness is not the fault of a child or parent,” said Rossner. “Yet, sometimes they show up on the report because they neglected to submit the documentation (attesting to the illness).”

“Parents don’t always know that at 10 absences, the student will be required to obtain a doctor’s note for any subsequent absences,” said Tar, adding that this is a statewide law with which all school districts must conform.

The solution is systematic outreach to students and parents, which is where Tar’s role as outreach specialist comes in. This gives both an opportunity to resolve any paperwork discrepancies.

“We see our role as being an ally, not to play ‘gotcha,’” Tar said. “We invite students to tell us why they haven’t been in school.”

This open approach can uncover issues heretofore unknown to the guidance staff or administrators. Classroom bullying or other conflicts with students or teachers can be a factor. So can events at home. In a recent situation, the student became despondent after the death of a beloved relative who had lived with the immediate family. The student’s attendance and grades spiraled downward — until Rossner and Tar stepped in to find out the cause.

Where more in-depth issues are identified, DART provides parents with a directory of helpful services.

“The goal is always the best fit for the student,” said Rossner.

“Yet there are plenty of instances when a student will simply say, ‘I just don’t like school,’” said Tar. “Our goal then becomes keeping the student engaged enough to graduate on schedule.”

At times that might require administrators to be flexible with the courses a student takes and the hours of the day he or she is required to be in school. The system affords high-schoolers in particular with a good deal of latitude in what they want to do.

“Students also have options such as night school, which they might want to try if they have jobs during the day,” Tar said.

That experience in itself can be eye-opening, because students often realize that method makes finishing school even more difficult.

In today’s world, high school students have become highly career-focused. They often have clear ideas of the type of work they’d like to do when they finish their education. The challenge for school administrators is to make students realize that what they want often requires time in the classroom — both in high school and even beyond.

Nor does absenteeism or dropping out always end at the high school level. Tar teaches criminal justice part-time at Pace University in New York, and describes the freshman dropout rate as enormous.

“So many kids arrive at college because they feel they are supposed to be there … not because they want to be,” Tarr noted.

The difference in that situation is, of course, that college students are considered grown-ups who can decide whether — or not — to remain in school. Students in grades kindergarten through 12 need legitimate reasons not to stay.

“We work with everyone involved to determine what’s going on and how we can help,” said Rossner. “But we can never be miracle workers. There will always be some kids who just don’t ‘feel like’ coming to school. When that’s the case, it’s our role to get them here.”