Weeks into the school year, teachers and principals already are noticing some students’ seats are empty too often.
These aren’t students who are sick for a day or two but kids who regularly miss school and whose families offer no explanation for their absence. And school officials know that if these kids aren’t in class, they’re going to fall behind.
Last school year, 555 students from 20 local elementary and intermediate schools missed at least 10 days of school. That 10-day mark is significant because it’s more than 5 percent of the school year and triggers a response from schools looking to find out what prevents a child from coming to school.
That’s where the Family Resource Program comes in. The program, which is overseen by Johnson County Community Corrections, works with local elementary and intermediate schools. The goal is to contact and work with families whose children are either not making it to school or who regularly arrive late or leave early, juvenile director Lori Meyers said.
They often find that the problem is solvable, such as reminding parents of schools’ start times and the importance of having the child at school by the time class starts.
“Our belief is that the more that a student attends school, the more likely they will be successful in other areas of their life, and (they) will be less likely to be delinquent,” Meyers said.
The program works with Center Grove, Clark-Pleasant, Edinburgh, Franklin and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools and will begin working with Greenwood schools this school year.
Usually, 50 to 75 students at Greenwood’s four elementary schools miss at least 10 of the 180 school days each year. Students who miss that much school can quickly fall behind in math, English and other core lessons and have a difficult time catching up, assistant superintendent of learning Rick Ahlgrim said.
Younger students depend on their parents to make sure they get to school on time, and as students come close to missing 10 days of class, school districts send notices home to parents, letting them know that their child has to make it to school each day. But teachers and principals can’t always follow up with families whose children are regularly absent to find out why, he said.
“A lot of times, all of the interventions that the school district has available prove insufficient to making parents fulfill their legal obligation to get their children to school,” Ahlgrim said.
During the 2013-14 school year, 555 out of 10,756 students — or about 5 percent — were referred to the program after having 10 or more unexcused absences or missing at least two hours of instruction 10 or more times, Meyers said.
She said the number of families the program works with each year varies: Center Grove, for example, referred 134 students to the program during the 2013-14 school year and 171 students during the 2012-13 school year. But of the 171 students referred to the program in 2013, just 17 were referred to the program again last school year.
Clark-Pleasant and the county’s other school districts also had a low number of students who needed to be referred to the program for a second year, Meyers said.
Some students were referred to the program because their parents didn’t realize when school began, and they were regularly late getting their child to class. Other times, Meyers said, a parent might be keeping a child home because of a recurring toothache or dental problem, but the family doesn’t have enough money to pay for a dentist.
The program and its resource officers try to work with families to solve any problems or challenges they face. So if a child is having dental problems the family can’t afford to fix, the resource officers may connect them with free or reduced-price dental services in the area, Meyers said.
If a student continues to miss school or show up late after they’ve been referred to the program, the parents could be charged with neglect, although that’s rare. Last school year, charges were filed against nine families, Meyers said.
Once students reach middle school, they’re considered old enough to be able to get to school each day on time. If they miss school or two or more hours of class 10 or more times, the school will send their names to Johnson County juvenile probation department, which will investigate the students for truancy. In 2013, the most recent year available, 150 area middle and high school students were referred to juvenile probation for truancy, director Suzanne Miller said.
Last school year, the Family Resource Program began a pilot at Center Grove’s two middle schools and at Indian Creek Middle School to provide solutions for middle school students who had missed 10 or more days of school. Meyers said that pilot program is continuing this school year.
“Bottom line, we are trying to intervene so those kids don’t have to be formally on probation for truancy, in hopes that we can give a more personalized approach,” Meyers said.