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Will truancy solution survive budget?

A while back, Travis Smith of Wood County got a phone call from a former student. The student had tracked down Smith's phone number through a mutual acquaintance on Facebook.

"He asked if I remembered him," recalled Smith, one of Wood County's student support specialists, social workers who help students solve problems that interfere with school.

"Yeah," Smith said. "I remembered him."

When Smith knew him, the student had missed 70 days in one school year. His last year at Edison Junior High was a loss academically, but Smith worked with him and his mom. The student improved a little that year, and even more the next.

But what the man called to say was that Smith had set him in the process of realizing the importance of school.

"Back then I would use examples of older kids he would know," Smith recalled. Smith pointed out older dropouts, hanging around, idle. "Does he have a job?" Smith would ask. "Did he finish school?"

This kid wanted to better himself, Smith said. The student ended up moving away to a new school, a fresh start, without the baggage. He graduated from high school and went to Marshall University.

"He failed out the first semester, but he went back," Smith said. When the student called his old counselor, almost 10 years after Smith first met him as a truant middle-schooler, he was about to graduate from college, and he had a job lined up.

Smith started working with Wood County students who missed too much school way back in 2000. He was part of the original Truancy Diversion Social Work Program run by Children's Home Society and funded by the state with federal money. Social workers fanned out across the state, found absent kids and helped families sort out problems that interfered with school. They got students back to class.

The state cut the program despite its success, but Wood County has kept a vestige of it in some form ever since. Smith worked a couple different jobs in the meantime. Last year, he returned to working with truant kids.

Smith was one of seven student support specialists hired by county Attendance Director Chris Rutherford. Rutherford used federal stimulus money for the positions, even though he knew he had only a year's worth of funds.

"They're doing such a good job," Rutherford said. Wood County ranks eighth among the counties in attendance, second among counties with at least 10,000 students. Last year, 93.81 percent of students were in school when they were supposed to be. So far this school year, 94.52 percent of student are in school.

While that doesn't sound like a large increase, it works out to 280 students a day who are in school now who were not last year. "That's about the size of a medium to small elementary school," Rutherford said. "If we continue at this pace, this will be our best attendance in a decade, or maybe 12 years."

Wood County has also had just 69 students drop out during this school year, compared to about 140 a year until recently.

Rutherford credits his seven specialists.

Workers have given rides to families who could not get children to school. They found a family with eight children staying in a hotel. They got the children back in school, where they get two good meals a day, and helped the family and others find affordable food and housing. They helped a mother begin the process of getting away from domestic violence. They helped a couple of 18-year-old students who had no one looking after them to get help with food and housing. They have worked with charities to get bills cleared up and to get utilities turned on. Every burden they help parents resolve helps the children attend and thrive in school.

"You get too many of these things, and it paralyzes you," Rutherford said.

Now it's budget time and Rutherford is meeting with his bosses, trying to find money to keep his staff. He doesn't know if he'll be able to keep all seven. He wants eight.

The county is sending more truancy notices home, but they are taking fewer families to court this year. That means they are solving attendance problems before they have to go to court, he said.

"They have changed the school climate, the culture," Rutherford said.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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