Goal Is to Keep Kids in School; Social Workers Care about Truant Students

Article excerpt

Byline: Laura Diamond, Times-Union staff writer

It had been a week since Tiffany Banks attended Butler Middle School. That worried Sharon Yow.

Tiffany, 13, is a bright girl who received As and Bs on a recent progress report. But Yow, an attendance social worker for Duval County schools, knew it would be easy for Tiffany to resume her bad habits.

During the first nine weeks of school, Tiffany skipped 30 days, Yow said. Tiffany returned only when her mother was threatened with arrest for having a truant child, Yow said.

Now that Tiffany was skipping again, Yow went to the girl's house to investigate the problem. Tiffany told Yow she was sick, but since there was no doctor's note, Yow said the girl needed to return to school.

Yow's routine as an attendance social worker includes tracking down students at their homes. She often makes repeat visits to remind families that children must be in school.

Students are allowed to miss school for excused absences, such as illness, religious observances or a death in the family. But about 1,300 Duval County students are classified as truant every month because they repeatedly skip school for other reasons. These truant students struggle academically and cost the school system thousands of dollars.

Truant students are twice as likely to be left back because they fall behind in class. Students who repeat a grade are twice as likely to drop out, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center.

Last year, Duval County lost about $416,000 because students were not in school when the state conducted its attendance counts to determine funding, budget director Stephen Bright said. The school system has a $1.2 billion budget.

To combat this problem, the school system works with the city and the State Attorney's office. This partnership has made Duval County a model in combatting truancy. Similar plans have been implemented by school systems in Arizona, California and Illinois.

Under the plan, law enforcement officers return truant students to school or to one of three city-operated truancy centers.

Attendance social workers like Yow are not allowed to round up students. Instead they track down students. They meet with them and their families to provide referrals for counseling and health care needs to eliminate the obstacles that hinder attendance.

If attendance fails to improve, parents can be arrested and students can be sent into the juvenile justice system. A student with 15 unexcused absences in 90 days can lose the right to receive a driver's license or learner's permit or have an existing license suspended.

Last school year, 22 Duval County parents were arrested, said Shelley Grant, director of youth offender programs for the State Attorney's Office. Rather than being jailed, parents are usually released on their own recognizance and receive a year's probation, Grant said. Some are required to attend parenting classes and accompany their child at school for three days to learn how much students miss when they're absent, she added.

Arrest is reserved for the most egregious truancy cases. Truancy problems are first handled at the school level, with administrators calling and meeting with parents.

After five unexcused absences within a month, the district staff meets with parents and students to discuss ways to correct the problem. If the attendance doesn't improve, the school system's 10-person staff takes over the case.

Yow, a licensed clinical social worker, has been working with truant students for six years.

"It is hard because I tell parents things they need to do, but I have trouble doing them with my own son," said Yow, 47.

Some parents give in too easily and allow their children to skip school, Yow said. Her son Jake, an eighth-grader at Fletcher Middle School, doesn't enjoy school. It used to be that every morning Jake would say he was sick, but Yow would give him some aspirin and send him on his way. …