Chronic absenteeism brought to the forefront

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At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, the Muscatine Community School District set a goal to improve attendance in every building district-wide. One of the main areas of concern was those students who are chronically absent. Chronic absence is defined as being absent from 10% of classes or more.

The MCSD has partnered with the Muscatine Police Department and the Muscatine County Attorney’s office to develop a comprehensive plan to improve attendance.

A committee has been established to combat the issue when students are at a younger age. The committee includes members of the Muscatine Police Department, MCSD staff, and representatives from United Way.

Lt. Jeff Jirak explains that the program is part of the Problem-Oriented Police Programs. The program focuses on issues in the community such as housing and truancy. The truancy program is looking at a targeted age group to help reduce the impacts of truancy later in life.

Since the implementation of the new process, all MCSD elementary schools have seen a drop in the number of chronically absent students.

When looking into the issues surrounding chronic absenteeism, Central Middle School Assistant Principal Shauna Dennison says it comes down to procedures. Prior to the committee, schools across the district handled absenteeism slightly differently. With the new procedures in place, she feels there is a structure that can be relied upon.

Staff at the schools meet weekly to discuss the topic and to take appropriate steps when needed.

Jefferson Principal Corry Spies says that in some cases, parents are not aware of the state code on attendance. He explains that once that understanding is reached, the families can begin to work with the school to improve the child’s attendance.

According to state regulations, students are not permitted to miss more than 10% of school days. Jirak states that students who are absent 18 days or more over a school year are at a higher risk of becoming involved with the police department in a negative setting. He describes working with residents over the past twenty years with whom his initial contact was based on a truancy issue.

Parents of students who are approaching the 10% mark are now being contacted by the school. Parents may receive a letter reminding them of the importance of attendance.

Spies explains that in some cases, a child who misses two consecutive days may be brought to the attention of the committee, as that student would be absent 40% of that week.

Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren says the involvement of his office is needed in some cases for parents and caregivers to understand the importance of attending school. Parents who do not take action on their child’s attendance may find themselves facing civil penalties in the form of a $100 fine. For more extreme cases, parents may incur criminal charges as well.

Ostergren explains that in the past, truancy enforcement has focused on high school-aged students. The complete district approach is bringing to light patterns that may be developing at a younger age.

Attendance can be a symptom of a larger issue, Spies explains. The intent of the new approach is to work with families and find where needs may lie.

In addition to the proactive approach by the district, steps are being taken to create a uniform system district-wide.

Patti Fritz has been hired as the MCSD Elementary Attendance Coordinator. With experience in the HS attendance office, Fritz brings knowledge of how attendance patterns emerge. Fritz will be located at the school board office and will work with the committee to reach out to families and create consistency district-wide.

Beginning February 21, families of elementary students will have a new number to call to report their child as absent.

Parents are now able to all (563) 262-4150. The line is equipped with a messaging system. Fritz explains, “When the child becomes sick the night before, and parents know the child will not be attending school the next day, they can call and not have to worry about it in the morning.”

Parents can also email [email protected].