CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Legislative Oversight Committee on Education has chided Assistant State School Superintended Dr. Amelia Davis-Courts over the apparent inability to produce an accurate county-by-county truancy report.
One has to ask what LOCEA plans to do with the report when they receive it. Truancy is a serious problem that merits our collective attention. In Kanawha County, the state's largest county school system with 28,500 students, students missed a total of 154,207 days during the 2011-12 school year. More than 11,132 students missed 10 or more days. This translates to taxpayers paying nearly $9 million dollars, 4 percent of the Kanawha County School budget, to educate empty desks of absent students.
In far too many instances, the legislative education sub-committee meetings and other interim meetings become forums to hear reports and collect statewide data, tell anecdotes, have shallow and occasionally deep philosophical discussions and then take little, if any, actions that result in meaningful change.
School truancy may well turn out to be another case of philosophical meandering. Over the last year there has been much discussion regarding school truancy. Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis and Circuit Judge Robert Moats organized 14 meetings across West Virginia to talk about expanding judicial truancy programs. In Kanawha County, Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants and Circuit Judge Duke Bloom have both taken steps to get tough on parents of truant students by imposing punishment including community services and in a couple of instances sending the parent to jail.
Lawmakers, justices and prosecutors should all be commended for their interest, concern and efforts to address the truancy issue, but they cannot solve the problem alone. In fact, they are not even in the best position to lead the efforts. Instead, they should be lending their stature to mobilize local communities to take ownership of the truancy problem and offering their support to community led initiatives.
Here is a truancy reduction idea for lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and school administrators to consider: Establish a demonstration project that effectively engages community volunteers as attendance coordinators. These community attendance coordinators would support the efforts of county school attendance directors and school social workers.
Community school attendance coordinators would be recruited from the community and thoroughly vetted, including background checks by the county school superintendent's office. The attendance coordinator would sign agreements to work under the direction of a school social worker. The social worker would identify students at-risk for truancy before it reached the going to court stage.
Each community coordinator would be assigned three children to monitor. The school coordinator's role would be to call the parent and students every morning by 6:30 a.m. to make sure the parent and child were up and preparing for school. The volunteer would call back to make sure that the student actually left home to arrive at school on time. The volunteer would then email the school's social worker to advise them as to whether they thought the student would be coming to school that day.
This is the type of proactive community engagement that is required to address truancy. We really do not need more laws. Yes, consequences for parents and students, like community service and home confinement are appropriate, but sending parents to jail for their children's truancy is not the answer to addressing school truancy.
Getting tough on truancy like getting tough on crime, might make for good political theater, but getting smart on truancy and effectively engaging local communities makes more sense. It will probably yield better results.
Watts is senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston.