Students can stand before a judge for skipping school, but long before that’s needed, local mentors and teachers want to step in.
“Truancy is not just a school issue, it’s a community issue,” said Jacqueline Oros, executive director of student support services at Durango School District 9-R.
It is also a red flag for a slew of underlying issues facing a student such as poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and depression, said Jennifer Turner, a program coordinator for La Plata Youth Services.
Last school year, the Durango and Bayfield school districts and La Plata Youth Services jointly received a four-year grant through the Colorado Department of Education to tackle the issue. They have partnered with six other agencies including Ignacio School District 11-JT, Axis Health System and the Durango Police Department to form the School Multi-disciplinary Assessment Review Team or SMART collaborative.
As part of the greater effort, the Durango School District 9-R attendance policy was tightened, more mentors brought on staff and attendance patterns are now reviewed regularly to catch poor attendance patterns.
Ian Lennox, a mentor at Escalante Middle School, was surprised by how many middle school students were chronically absent when he began.
“At this age, truancy when it becomes a pattern, it’s really hard to break it,” he said.
That’s why he starts each day looking for specific students to walk through the door. When they don’t, he starts making phone calls to see if he can help them get to school. For example, if a student missed the bus, their only ride to school, he will try to organize other transportation.
He also works with students to find motivation to stay in school. Students are looking for peer acceptance, adults who care and education that applies to their life goals, and when they don’t find it, they disengage, Turner said.
Straight-A student Shannin Mayberry, 13, struggled with the “drama” of seventh grade last year to the point where she didn’t want to go to class. But instead of going home, she had the opportunity to talk with Lennox about problems with other students.
“He’s pretty much like a counselor, I trust him more than a counselor,” she said.
When school-based interventions are not enough, La Plata Youth Services steps in to provide counseling and connect students and families with other services through the collaborative. But they don’t force anything on anyone. Instead, they ask the family and the student what kind of therapy and services they need, Turner said.
The nonprofit used to focus on providing an alternative to juvenile detention. But by expanding into truancy services Turner said, they are able to reach students disengaging from their community, instead of just those who are acting out in criminal ways.
In the first year of the program, only one student had to go before a judge because he failed to change his pattern of attendance, Turner said. The nonprofit served 105 students last year and would like to serve 150 in the coming year.
Durango’s school district does not yet have data on the success of the program, Oros said.
This school year La Plata Youth Services is also working to creatively expand truancy services to middle and elementary schools. It helped funded one more mentor to work at Escalante Middle School with Lennox and are working on a pilot program at Riverview Elementary School.
Colorado Division of Criminal Justice funded the extra programs through a two-year, $90,000 grant. La Plata Youth Services is also using the grant for research into truancy in lower grade levels.