Sunday, June 17, 2018
Education

As absences pile up for thousands of students, Pinellas works to keep them in school

Donna Sicilian was a pro at skipping class.

Faking sick to go to the clinic, asking for passes to the school store, sometimes walking out just to get away. A homesick sixth-grader, she tried everything to avoid spending another minute in school.

"I would actually get on the railroad tracks that ran behind Largo Middle and try to walk back home to New York," she said. It earned her a paddling.

Now, as the Pinellas County school district's executive director of student services, Sicilian is leading an effort to identify and help the thousands of students who are chronically absent like she was. Nearly 13 percent of Pinellas students missed at least 21 days of school in 2014-15, the most recent statistics available for statewide comparison.

That makes up more than 15,000 students countywide. It is the highest percentage among the state's large districts, and the second-highest in the Tampa Bay area behind Hernando County, which had a rate of 13.5 percent.

Hillsborough County's rate was 9.9 percent and Pasco County's was 9.7 percent. The state average clocks in at 9.7 percent.

A caveat: School districts often differ in how they define absenteeism. Pasco, for example, marks students absent only if they miss every period in a day, while Pinellas and Hernando count them absent if they miss anything more than a half-day.

Still, Pinellas was concerned enough about its numbers to launch an attendance awareness campaign at the beginning of the school year aimed at bringing absenteeism down.

Parents can now report their child's absences online with a new icon on each school's website and attach a doctor's note or provide a reason for the absence. The schools also have been provided with a problem-solving rubric to identify what interventions are needed to address why a student didn't make it to school.

More than 8,000 attendance reports sent through that icon reveal a wide variety of attendance issues. At the elementary level, reasons extend beyond the student's control — asthma, bullying, family-related issues. But as the students get older, the reasons shift toward individual student issues in addition to chronic health problems.

"I think it kind of drives down the point when we say, 'Why did kids miss?' " Sicilian said. "There's as many reasons as there are kids."

She says the new systems in place are working. So far, two-thirds of Pinellas schools have improved attendance since November 2015. Schools also are tracking students who have missed 10 percent of class each month to intervene and prevent them from becoming chronically absent.

Azalea Middle in St. Petersburg reported that 44 percent of its students were chronically absent last school year, one of the highest rates in the county. But those numbers have been steadily dropping — from 29 percent in August to 24 percent in December.

Azalea's new principal, Solomon Lowery, said the school is using campus monitors to crack down on students who are on campus but not in class.

"There's a new sense of accountability throughout our campus where we're not having issues we've had in previous years," he said. "We have made significant progress and we will continue to pursue those avenues."

Pinellas also is recognizing schools that have made the most improvement in their attendance rates. Across the bay, Hillsborough has been doing the same, even rewarding high school seniors with perfect attendance in a drawing for a car from Toyota of Tampa Bay.

When Holly Saia, now Hillsborough's director of student services, was principal of Shaw and Twin Lakes elementary schools, she said she always liked to recognize the parents along with their children for good attendance.

"Every year since I've been here we've always done something to recognize students," Saia said.

Norin Dollard, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida's Department of Child and Family Studies, is also a director for Florida Kids Count, a report that tracks the status of children's well-being with benchmarks of demographic, economic and education data.

She said kids with high absences are missing out on more than schoolwork. Many are from low-income families who receive free and reduced-price lunches at school and may be getting fed less when they stay home.

About one-quarter of students who are chronically absent in Pinellas are black, a disproportionate number.

"Absenteeism is related to dropouts, substance abuse, criminal activity, especially with older kids," Dollard said. "We know that truancy is a big predictor of academic failure."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

 
Comments
AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

Since 2002, the AP World History course has covered thousands of years of human activity around the planet, starting 10,000 years back. But now the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, wants to cut out most of that history and st...
Published: 06/16/18
School board races attract new faces

School board races attract new faces

TAMPA — When long-time Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes resigned this month from the board to run for the State House of Representatives, the decision affected more than just her seat in west Hillsborough’s District 1.It also coul...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/17/18
Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

TAMPA — Money that the Hillsborough County School District needs to build schools and replace air conditioners might be farther from reach, thanks to a new state law and a bureaucratic process required before the voters can decide on a tax referendum...
Published: 06/14/18
University of Chicago eliminates SAT/ACT requirement

University of Chicago eliminates SAT/ACT requirement

The University of Chicago will no longer require ACT or SAT scores from U.S. students, sending a jolt through elite institutions of higher education as it becomes the first top-10 research university to join the test-optional movement.Numerous school...
Published: 06/14/18
Unhappy with superintendent’s budget wish list, Hernando School Board shuts down talk of tax increase

Unhappy with superintendent’s budget wish list, Hernando School Board shuts down talk of tax increase

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County schools Superintendent Lori Romano presented to the School Board Tuesday nearly $53 million worth of budget priorities, asking them to choose which will be funded in the upcoming school year.The board voted 3-2 later Tue...
Published: 06/13/18
UT shines the spotlight on visiting authors

UT shines the spotlight on visiting authors

The University of Tampa’s MFA program will host the June 2018 Residency Visiting Writers Lectores Series that runs from now until June 21 on the ninth floor of the Vaughn Center, 401 W Kennedy Blvd. Each reading will be held at 7:30 p.m.Each January ...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/15/18
Hernando School Board fires Superintendent Lori Romano after member says she ‘lost the public trust’

Hernando School Board fires Superintendent Lori Romano after member says she ‘lost the public trust’

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County schools Superintendent Lori Romano will step down at the end of this month following a 3-2 vote by the School Board to terminate its contract with her amid increasing concerns about her ability to lead.Romano has suffere...
Published: 06/12/18
Updated: 06/13/18
Pasco summit aims to merge school cultures while making students feel included

Pasco summit aims to merge school cultures while making students feel included

NEW PORT RICHEY — The dozen Fivay High school students and their administrators arrived at the Pasco County school district’s annual Together We Stand conference with a clear goal in mind.With hundreds of former Ridgewood High students arriving in th...
Published: 06/12/18
Central’s air rifle team prepares for national competition

Central’s air rifle team prepares for national competition

BROOKSVILLE — Historic Camp Perry is where it’s at. Located near Clinton, Ohio, the National Guard training facility is where the nation’s top shooters go to compete.Next week, some of Hernando County’s top shooters compete there in the Civilian Mark...
Published: 06/11/18
Updated: 06/14/18
An ambitious new goal for Hillsborough schools: Every child up to speed on reading by third grade

An ambitious new goal for Hillsborough schools: Every child up to speed on reading by third grade

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins has an ambitious new goal. He wants more students to be proficient in reading."I think it is the code to crack," Eakins said in an interview. He also told the School Board on Tuesday that ...
Published: 06/08/18