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Unprecedented effort to fight truancy 

Before the Rochester school district could launch its new crackdown on chronic truancy, school officials had to clean up their attendance records and draft a detailed plan of attack. Earlier efforts were stymied by faulty data, missteps, and a lack of coordination and follow-up. But officials say that this time they are better prepared to tackle the problem.

Representatives from the school district, City of Rochester, police department, Monroe County, and several nonprofit agencies have joined together to form for the first time a task force to reduce truancy and to improve attendance in the lower grades.

Task force members met last week to share recently compiled data on attendance. Poor record-keeping has obscured the truancy problem to some extent, but now that the district has improved attendance procedures, the magnitude of the problem is clearer.

District-wide, absenteeism in city schools is staggering. Schools 4, 17, 22, and 30 are the worst at the elementary level, while East and Charlotte high schools rank the worst at the secondary level. On average, students in these schools missed 10 percent or more of instruction within the first eight weeks of school.

At School 22, for example, 34 percent of kindergarteners had been absent for at least 10 percent or 18 days of school, and 17 percent had missed more than 20 percent of school.

The situation is about the same for the school's third graders: more than 28 percent had missed at least 10 percent of school. And nearly 18 percent had missed more than 20 percent of school.

And the numbers don't improve significantly in the district's other elementary schools. An analysis of nearly 40 mostly K to 6 schools shows that more than 22 percent of kindergarteners, 21 percent of first graders, 18 percent of second graders, and 15 percent of third graders had missed more than 18 days of school during the first eight weeks.

Out of a total of 10,538 students in kindergarten through third grade, more than 3,000 had missed a critical amount of instruction time. And they are barely a quarter of the way through the school year.

School officials say they are confident their data is accurate.

City schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has made reducing chronic truancy and improving attendance one of his highest priorities. He's engaged city and community leaders in a plan used by the City of Yonkers that emphasizes good attendance habits in the early grades to avoid costly intervention and dropouts later.

Chronic truancy is a bedrock issue directly linked to the district's low graduation rate. Students with poor attendance habits in the early grades frequently fall behind, particularly in reading and math skills. And they are often slow to develop the self-discipline needed to study and take their education seriously.

And truancy is a community-wide problem. Officials at last week's meeting cited research showing that elementary students with high rates of absenteeism are at greater risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system as juveniles.

But as officials learned in a district-coordinated blitz of door-knocking to find truants prior to their meeting, identifying the students is only the beginning. Understanding the underlying causes of truancy and helping families is the real challenge. And it's unclear how prepared the community is to deal with the problems.

Some of the officials said they heard variations on the age-old ruses students use to stay home. For example, one student told his non-English-speaking parents that America doesn't have school five days a week. And they believed him.

But most of the problems are not so easily solved. Chronic truancy is often a result of multiple, converging issues: poverty, poor parenting skills, and health concerns, for example.

"We talked to three females who were absolutely shocked that their children were not in school," said city Commissioner Carlos Carballada, who took part in the search for truants.

A visibly upset Jennifer Leonard, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, said that at three of her six visits, a severe mental health problem was the main issue behind the truancies.

And Ed Lopez, corporate counsel for the district, said he learned that the 18-year-old male he was looking for was at his pregnant girlfriend's house. The student's mother said she had lost control of her son's behavior.

The arsenal for getting students back into the classroom comes with limitations and drawbacks.

County officials said they can help the district find a current address for students who may have moved in the city. If the student's family is receiving public assistance, the county typically has their current address. The county receives between 40 and 50 such calls a month from school districts searching for addresses, one official said.

But providing mental health services to students and families is more difficult. There is a shortage of mental health workers in the Rochester area, according to one county official. So the county and the district may have to pool their resources.

One of the biggest concerns officials discussed is the blurry definition of educational neglect, and when child protective services should be contacted. Neglect is somewhat loosely defined by the state as "impairment to the child's education" due to lack of attendance. Parents are aware of the problem, but they've neglected to take steps to correct it, according to the state.

As part of their effort, the Yonkers community sent a flyer home to parents, warning them that not sending their children to school is breaking the law.

Anita Murphy, the Rochester school district's deputy superintendent, says the purpose of the new truancy initiative is not criminalization, but to get families the help they need.

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