ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County school superintendent John Stewart said he doesn't put much stock in state data that show county schools had the highest percentage of truancy among Florida's large districts.
For one thing, he doesn't know how the other school districts reported their absenteeism.
But he said Monday that the district's chronic absenteeism was an urgent matter.
"You can't learn if you're not there," Stewart said during a forum at Northeast High School. A group of about 50 parents, educators and students met for two hours to discuss why absenteeism was so high. According to the state Department of Education, Pinellas had the highest percentage of students who missed more than 21 days or more among the eight districts in Florida with more than 100,000 students.
There was no agreement on one cause for the absenteeism.
Zia Ficocelli said attendance would be better if the classes were held later. The ninth-grader at Dixie Hollins High School said she prefers sleeping in on some mornings and is able to catch up later on the material. Ficocelli said she gets A's and B's, so missing classes hasn't held her back.
Bobby Catterton, an eighth-grader at Tyrone Middle School, said too many rules — like no cellphones — drive many of his friends to skip school.
And Charlika Roney, an 11th-grader at Gibbs High School, said there are too few consequences for students who miss class.
"It's not expected of our students," Roney said.
Several educators agreed, adding that while teachers have focused on improving student performance on standardized tests, attention to behavior has slipped.
"I don't have any problems with accountability," said Michelle Dudley, a social studies teacher at Northeast High School. "But there's no accountability for behavior."
Stewart said he will form a committee to address the problem.
In 2010-2011, about 13 percent of Pinellas students missed more than 21 days. Absenteeism was actually worse in the 2008-09 school year, when 17.8 percent of students missed that many days.