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Pasco schools fight widespread absenteeism among students

NEW PORT RICHEY — Kylia Lempfert knows all about missing school.

As a sixth-grader last year, the Gulf Middle School student skipped 29 days.

"I used to oversleep," said Kylia, 12, explaining that she often stayed up late watching television while living with a relative she said didn't care if Kylia made it to classes. "By the time I would wake up, it was too late to go to school."

She made D's and F's. She ignored her teachers, got in trouble.

"I didn't like school," Kylia said. "I didn't go to it enough to like it."

That wasn't unusual at Gulf Middle.

During 2010-11, the school had 71 percent of its students miss more than 10 days of classes. Of those, 24 percent missed more than 20 days — worse than almost every other middle and high school in Pasco County.

Students had their many reasons. They included family economic woes, illnesses, even the school's changed start time. When the school day began after 8 a.m., about 42 percent of students missed more than 10 days.

The number skyrocketed after the district decided Gulf would begin its day at 7:40 a.m. to save money on busing.

But the biggest problem, guidance counselor Cheri Lehmker said, was "just skipping. It's the majority. We had a lot of kids who don't show up for days."

District officials have targeted truancy as a key issue to overcome this year across the county. Gulf Middle School is jumping into the effort with both feet.

A great deal of its approach involves reaching out to families, through letters and phone calls and conferences (if possible), all aimed at finding ways to get the kids to come back.

"If I see a student is out two days in a row, I'll start calling to see what the problem is," special education teacher Diane Lowe said.

A team of educators shares the effort, she said. That includes the student's current and past teachers, the school guidance counselor, social worker and others.

"We reinforce each other," Lowe said.

Social worker Diane Clukey gave an example of a boy recently referred to her for absenteeism.

She met with the boy and his parents — her third such parent in meeting for truancy in a single morning — and learned that the boy had been skipping out of frustration. He struggled with reading and found his double-block of required intensive reading too much to bear with no outlet for anything he enjoyed.

Clukey said she made him a deal: If he came to school four consecutive days, she would get him into a P.E. class on the fifth day.

"I focus on the kid. What can I give you that makes you want to be here?" she said. "We have to make the kids want to be here."

Doing that takes on many forms. Sometimes, it means making course work more interesting. Other times, it means getting students to feel comfortable at school.

Math teacher Bart Brandi said he makes sure his students know he can be an "enforcer" as well as someone they can count on. They feel welcome and safe, and they tend to come more, he said.

Sometimes just saying nice things and rewarding positive behavior helps, too, Brandi added.

Toward that end, the school has adopted a series of programs aimed at supporting good actions, with attendance playing a key role.

One initiative is the "on-track competition."

Students are considered on track if they have one or no discipline referrals, no F grades and less than 5 percent absences in a quarter. The seventh graders won the first round and had an in-school dance as a reward.

On-track students also are eligible for other prizes, principal Stan Trapp said, adding that he looked to county schools with better attendance for solutions.

"The idea is to give them that recognition, but also create an atmosphere where the others want to get that recognition, too," Trapp explained. "We are creating a positive environment and a climate where students experience success."

The attendance piece has improved as a result, although there's still much room for improvement, counselor Lehmker said.

At the end of the first quarter, 65.3 percent of sixth graders, 59.6 percent of seventh graders and 64.9 percent of eighth graders missed less than 5 percent of the school days. Compounding matters, 19 percent of Gulf Middle's students have withdrawn since the start of the year, while 22 percent enrolled afterward.

Being there matters, educators and students agreed.

When students skip, Kylia said, "it's mean. You're affecting other peoples' learning."

Social studies teacher Jason Genaro explained that teachers face a dilemma in dealing with kids who reappear after days away.

If he spends time reviewing material with a child who missed too much, it takes away from instruction for everyone else, Genaro said. But if he doesn't give enough information to catch that child up, he added, it creates new challenges for that student in trying to get back on track.

"It's a challenge also trying to get kids to stay after school," he added. "Maybe they don't have transportation or the best support system at home. But I always offer students the opportunity to make up anything they are missing."

Often, it comes down to a choice of making up past work, or staying on top of the current lesson plans and standards, language arts teacher Emily Gallagher said.

"We don't give busy work," Gallagher said. "But you really have to decide, based on the material you are currently doing, can you afford to have the student do something else instead?"

With new teacher evaluations tied to student performance, attendance gains even more weight, despite assurances that it will be accounted for through formulas aimed at determining how much value a teacher adds to a student's learning.

Kylia has gotten that message.

After a troubled sixth-grade year, she moved in with her grandmother, who is encouraging her to use education as a path to a positive future.

"I'm trying to get A's and B's this year instead of F's and D's," she said.

Kylia has missed just one day of school this year, and she made up her missed work the next day. She aspires to be a teacher.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

by the numbers

71% of Gulf Middle students missed more than 10 days in the 2010-11 school year.

24% percent of Gulf Middle students missed more than 20 days.

Pasco schools fight widespread absenteeism among students 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 1:23pm]
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