Educators and politicians in St. Charles say they have a plan in place to reduce the number of chronically absent students in the city’s school district.
Starting next year, the district will implement a truancy court, a program designed to get families the resources they need to keep students in school as often as possible.
"There's a whole array of explanations about why we have certain problems, why certain schools fail," said St. Charles County executive Steve Ehlmann. "But no matter where you are and what you think should be done, I think everyone should agree that we can't do anything if the kids aren't there."
In the past, St. Charles simply used the juvenile justice system to punish children who didn't go to school. Here's how the new model is different:
- School resource officers, who are in every school in the city's district, will keep an eye out for students with unexcused absences.
- Once a students under the age of 17 has five unexcused absences, juvenile justice officers, along with educators, will try to determine the root cause of the absences.
- If that evaluation determines that the student is just skipping school, he or she would be routed into the juvenile justice system.
- If that evaluation determines the parents could be doing more, St. Charles County prosecutor Tim Lohmar plans to charge the parents with a misdemeanor.
"We are simply trying to address the issues, provide services, and enlist cooperation of the parents," Lohmar said. "And if we do all those things, and that results in the child successfully attending school, we will drop the charges."
The new diversion program is based on a successful trial at Hardin Middle School. Principal Ed Gettemeier said he learned that a lot of chronically absent students just didn’t think school was important.
"Parents might be at work and a student just decides they just really don’t want to go to school today," Gettemeier said. "Or we have parents calling saying, I cannot get my child out of bed, they refuse to get out of bed."
State Evaluations Motivated New Program
New state achievement standards require 90 percent of students in a district to be in class 90 percent of the time. In 2013, only 86 percent of St. Charles students met that threshold. Superintendent Jeff Marion said that cost the district the opportunity to be considered "accredited with distinction," the highest ranking a Missouri school district can get.
"To me, that's just unfair to our community to look at our schools and say, 'Well, you're academically doing as well as these other schools,' because that's not what our number means," Marion said. "We want to stem the tide to make sure that we don't become one of those troubled schools in a troubled community."
Marion said the school district, prosecutors, and juvenile justice officials have put together a coalition of local, private social service agencies who are willing to provide whatever services they can to families, such as food, clothing and transportation. Volunteers at one church have said they'll make phone calls or knock on doors to get students to school.
St. Charles modeled its truancy program on one in the city of St. Louis. St. Louis County also had a truancy court in the early 2000s, although it's no longer operational.