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.