Arlington schools attack a growing truancy problem

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Latrinna Howard was at her wit’s end about how to keep her son Dominique in class at Sam Houston High School last year.

“I was about ready to throw in the towel,” Howard says now. “He just didn’t go to class.”

Dominique, who turns 17 next month , made average grades and passed his tests. But as soon as Howard went to work each morning at the Fort Worth Water Department, she could never be sure he was actually in school.

The Arlington district has taken several steps to help families like the Howards improve students’ participation in class.

Michael Hill, assistant superintendent of administration, terms Arlington’s truancy “a slowly growing problem” that responds to swift action.

“When a student reaches a certain number of absences, we deal with it right then,” Hill said. The number of student interventions at that level is large, he said, but by the time it reaches the court stage the numbers are quite small.

Latest data from the Texas Education Agency shows that statewide last year, 26,753 students had 10 or more unexcused absences, another 17,274 had three or more, and 10,915 parents were cited for contributing to their childrens’ truancy.

Almost 5 million students attend Texas public schools and charters.

Arlington school trustees recently voted to enter into a three-year collaborative agreement with the Tarrant County Commissioners Court to attack the truancy problem from all sides.

The district-county plan will address prevention, intervention and case management, said county commissioner Andy Nguyen. Technology will bring together parents, truancy officers, municipal judges, social workers and service organizations, all working with the same statistics and information compiled on a common database.

“It seems to us that all the pieces of the solution are already there, but the challenge is they’re not working together,” Nguyen said.

In Arlington schools, individual school administrators have also been toughening their campus policies in an effort to curb truancy.

Sam Houston High School principal Fernando Benavides issued a memo to students and parents at the start of Winter Break last year informing them of new, stricter tardy and absence policies at the school.

Principal Larry Harmon of Lamar High School also instituted stronger discipline and attendance measures after a community meeting last year.

Sam Houston administrators say they had positive results this year after moving the once-a-month Teen Court program to Sam from its former location in Mansfield.

Students and their parents liked having their cases heard at school.

“It gave them a real comfort zone,” said assistant principal Cathy Britton, who worked with the Howards to clear up Dominique’s absences in addition to making sure Judge Matt Hayes’ court ran smoothly. Britton set up the court in the school’s Little Theatre with a logo and a witness chair and other courtroom-style furnishings.

Attendance at court went up to 80 percent, quite a jump from the 20 percent of Sam Houston students that were showing up at Mansfield.

Almost 300 Sam Houston students had their truancy problems dealt with in Teen Court, an average of 35 to 45 students on each court date.

Benavides said the school’s attendance rate has gone up two percent in one year.

“Our average attendance at the end of last year was 93.1 percent, just under Lamar’s average,” Benavides said. At the end of the 2011-12 school year, it was 91.2 percent.

“We felt that was pretty significant,” Benavides said.

Lamar’s average attendance for the 2012-13 school year was 93.8 percent. Arlington High’s average was 94.9 percent, Bowie’s and Martin’s were both 96 percent, and Seguin’s was 95.6 percent.

Chronic absence is defined as missing at least 10 percent of the 180 school days in an academic year. Severe chronic absence is missing 20 percent, or about two months of school.

The Texas Education Code defines truancy as a legal offense involving students between 12 and 18 who skip classes on at least 20 days over six months, or three days within four weeks.

Many Arlington students miss school to care for young siblings or work jobs to bolster the family income. Some have no transportation, and others fall behind in their credits and feel they will never catch up.

While at Teen Court, the Howards found an answer. Dominique decided to enter a voluntary boot-camp style program called Texas Challenge Academy in Sheffield, Texas. It is a high school based on military practices endorsed by the National Guard.

Dominique earned a GED during his 5 1/2 months of residency there and still plans to finish his senior year at Sam Houston and get his diploma. He is receiving mentoring now that he has returned home as part of the program’s yearlong followup.

“His whole attitude has changed,” Howard said. “He made cadet leader and platoon sergeant, did community service, and he’s more respectful of others now.”

Truancy is a citywide problem, not confined to any one area or school community, said Hill.

Most parents are receptive to district efforts when they know principals are willing to help them find a solution, Hill said.

“A lot of it is getting out there and building relationships with those families,” Hill said. “We want to help them address it in ways other than slapping a fine on them.”

Howard says she still worries that her son might slip back into his old habits, but she is hopeful for his future. She would like to encourage other parents in the same situation, she said.

“Don’t give up,” she said, adding that solutions are out there. “Get with a principal at your school that really cares. I know it’s a struggle.”

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657 Twitter: @shirljinkins

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