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AmeriCorps: Make truancy a community problem

Chip Ellis
AmeriCorps volunteers are working with several counties to help reduce dropout rates in schools. The group was officially sworn in, along with dozens of other AmeriCorps volunteers, at the state Capitol on Friday.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While West Virginia cracks down on student truancy, and the courts place students who refuse to attend school in shelters, a group of AmeriCorps volunteers is working across the state to stop the problem before it gets that far.

"The state is pushing the problem from one corner to another instead of putting it in the middle of the room and talking about how we need to deal with it. Truancy is a symptom of a deeper issue. The judicial system has a role to play, but so does the community. There are alternatives," said Patricia Kusimo, president and CEO of the Education Alliance. "The answer is simple: encouragement."

The Education Alliance is working with AmeriCorps to place mentors with at-risk students in schools across several counties to decrease the state's soaring dropout rate. The program is the only one of its kind and takes a one-on-one approach to the issue of truancy, Kusimo said.

"All it takes is a positive adult role model who is consistently involved. Many students don't have that, and they need it to succeed," she said.

"This program allows mentors to talk to students about the bigger picture, about problems at home and about values and how you treat others -- things you would hope most parents talk about. Some kids don't have anyone gearing them in the right direction."

AmeriCorps mentors are assigned to students at risk of dropping out of school, identified by their teachers and community members, and help them with homework, build social skills and "just talk" -- all the while checking in with schools to monitor attendance.

Nearly 7,000 West Virginia students dropped out of high school in 2009, and about one in five had five or more unexcused absences last year, according to the state Department of Education. More than 29,000 students -- 9 percent of students statewide -- have been truant more than 10 days this year.

The state has launched an anti-truancy effort that could fine parents for not sending their children to school, assign a probation officer to the student or take them out of their home and place them in shelters.

"It's a vicious cycle. A student misses a lot of school because of issues at home then they get behind. Then they're embarrassed that they can't do the work at school and they either get discouraged and stop going or act out and get in trouble for behavioral issues. Then, they're kicked out and get further behind," Kusimo said. "This program was designed to break that cycle."

The program, which launched in August and is used in Cabell, Calhoun and Raleigh counties and others, is effective and unique because of its community-fueled approach, Kusimo said.

A similar program was implemented in Monroe County last year and brought the dropout rate from 34 students down to three.

The secret to success is something Emily Schoen, director of strategic relationships at The Education Alliance, calls "people power."

"The difference between our model and others is that we're not going in and telling schools, 'This is what you have to do.' We're allowing each county to create their own plan. It's very individualized," she said. "Our first step of the process sets up a dialogue forum in the community to see what their issue is. Then we provide the people to help make those changes."

Schoen said she's seen the results firsthand.

"One student dropped out last year, and it was one of the most devastating things that has happened in my life. I was so sad for her. But I kept contact with her to make sure she was OK. She got her GED and has a job, and she's turned it around," Schoen said. "It's important to have someone in your life to say, 'Don't give up.' You're not just doing a job, you're building relationships."

Only seven counties signed up for the program this year, but Schoen expects a lot more by next year's application process once communities start to realize the results.

"If people start contacting us now, we could start that dialogue-to-action process so that by next year's application, we can include their county. With or without us, counties need to make a commitment to creating a dropout prevention plan for their kids. It really will make a difference," she said.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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