Eliminating Dropouts with Persistence and Shoe Leather: This Small School District Took on Its Truancy Problem Head-On. Its Result: No Dropouts. (District Profile)

By Beem, Kate | District Administration, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Eliminating Dropouts with Persistence and Shoe Leather: This Small School District Took on Its Truancy Problem Head-On. Its Result: No Dropouts. (District Profile)


Beem, Kate, District Administration


Hooky players in Kentucky's Walton-Verona Independent School District don't stand a chance. If students log more than two unexcused absences in a row, they're guaranteed a visit from a two-man district team charged with keeping kids in school. Maybe administrator Larry Davis will knock on their door. Or perhaps Boone County Sheriff's Deputy Jan Wuchner will show up, asking for an explanation of why they're missing school.

The result of the intensive, hands-on approach to student attendance, called Schools and Families Empowered, or SAFE, is a drop-out rate that's non-existent. That's right: For the last three years, no Walton-Verona student has dropped out of school. All this in a state where the graduation rate is about 66 percent, and one in five state residents don't have a high school diploma.

As far as state education officials can tell, the 1,000-student Walton-Verona district is the only one in Kentucky with a zero drop-out rate. That distinction has earned the northern Kentucky district accolades from the state Department of Education and attention from other state districts who want to know how the district does what it does.

The formula for success is simple, Davis says: persistence and shoe leather. It's not accepting the first explanation for why students are chronically absent; it's looking beyond the obvious to what's below the surface. From August to April this year, Davis had made 125 home visits to a core group of about 60 students who made up the bulk of the SAFE program.

DELVING DEEPER INTO PROBLEMS

"We go as many times as it takes," Davis says. "When a kid wants to drop out of school, it's just a symptom of a larger problem."

Maybe the child is sick all the time, but the family can't afford health insurance and doesn't have the cash to visit a doctor. Sometimes the parents aren't aware that their children are skipping school, or there's an underlying situation, such as a pregnancy that the student doesn't want to discuss with the parents. Davis has filled out forms for the state's child health-insurance program, made doctor appointments, found free dental care and served as a family counselor. In one instance, Davis visited a home where the family had no beds. The children who lived there were so tired they either slept through school or didn't make it all. So Davis rounded up beds and bedding for the family.

"A lot of times the barrier that's keeping the youngster from coming to school to begin with is not education-related," says Walton-Verona Superintendent Robert Storer.

Yet, a string of absences quickly becomes an education problem. That's why Davis and Wuchner spring into action well ahead of the state's truancy law, which doesn't allow the courts to declare students habitual truants until they've missed 10 days of school. By that time, students probably are well on the way to failure, Storer says. Instead of waiting for the court system to spring into action, the SAFE program follows up on unexcused absences immediately, before students fall too far behind in their work.

Walton-Verona is no poor, rural school district. Its mostly middle-class population lives on the cusp of suburbia, 20 miles south of downtown Cincinnati, where farmland evolves into subdivisions and upscale developments. Yet, about 22 percent of the district's population qualifies for free- or reduced-price lunches.

MEETING HIGHER STATE STANDARDS But Walton-Verona's success is even more striking when you consider the context. For more than a decade, Kentucky's public schools have operated under the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which came out of a decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court that the state's school-finance law was inequitable. The Kentucky state legislature decided in the early 1990s to tie funding to accountability, developing a stringent set of standards that districts and students must meet and a statewide testing system in which students must show improvement from year to year. …

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