GUSD taking aim at truancy
GUSTINE – Truancy is costing the Gustine Unified School District tens of thousands of dollars a year in revenue, while interrupting the education of students who choose not to be in class.
District leaders are working on a program aimed at getting more of those students in the classroom on a regular basis.
Attendance in general is a focal point, explained Superintendent Dr. Ron Estes, with the two-fold goal of educational achievement (students don’t learn if they aren’t in class) and maximizing district revenues (most of the district’s revenues are derived from average daily attendance).
Increasing the districtwide attendance from its current 94.18 percent to 96 percent would bring in an additional $263,000 a year in attendance-based funding, Estes recently pointed out.
“We will put together a truancy action plan that has a couple of different pieces,” Estes commented.
Those components will likely include a carrot or two – perhaps in the form of attendance incentives – and also a stick, with school resource officers working to change the ways of habitual truants.
Truancy is particularly an issue at Gustine High.
Principal John Petrone said ongoing truancy issues at Gustine High and an eye-opening report on the costs of truancy issued by Attorney General Kamala Harris spurred him to meet recently with Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse and Assemblyman Adam Gray in an effort to garner support for tougher truancy measures.
Last year, Petrone said, truancy at Gustine High cost the district about $85,000 in per-pupil funding. As of November of this year, the lost revenue toll of unexcused absences stood at about $21,000, he estimated.
“There is a lot of money being lost to public education. There is a societal impact from truancy as well, but that is harder to quantify,” Petrone reflected.
The reasons for truancy vary widely, he added.
“Sometimes parents are complicit. Sometimes, the students are basically ruling the roost or there is an absence of parents in the situation,” the principal commented.
Students are considered chronic truants once they accumulate seven days of unexcused absences.
Petrone said letters and meetings with parents precede that designation in an effort to improve attendance.
“You try to prevent that student from crossing over that imaginary line,” he reflected. “When we have chronic truants and the parents are asking for help, we will send the school resource officer to their home and literally get them out of bed.”
A local Student Attendance Review Board (SARB) handles cases of habitual truancy, but Petrone acknowledged that attempting to resolve difficult cases can be frustrating.
“At some point, there has to be some teeth at the end in order to compel these kids to come to school,” he emphasized. “There are legal consequences, but there always seem to be some impediment to reaching those extremes. There is a perception that the process will just reach a point and the system will throw up its hands and do nothing further…..and in some cases that happens.”
Parents can be held liable if they are not making a good faith effort to get their children to school, Petrone noted. In one instance last year, he said, the school resource officer issued a citation to a parent for violating the compulsory education law.
Parents cannot be held accountable if they are doing everything within their power to get their child to attend school.
“When the onus is on the student, that it where it gets really sticky,” Petrone stated.
The goal, he reiterated, is to remedy truancy issues early on – while still having tools to effectively combat more excessive situations.
“Some of the truancy issues get rectified along the way, but with the extreme cases where you get to the end of the process…..you can put a case together and send it to the district attorney, but with their fiscal issues and staffing, how much time can they legitimately devote to that?” Petrone reflected. “I’m not casting blame, they’re just overwhelmed and understaffed.”
Petrone said he would be interested in seeing a countywide SARB reinstated, and more resources devoted to programs designed to keep students in school.
That effort, he emphasized, must start long before high school years.
“You have to get to the students when they are younger,” Petrone commented. “If a student is truant in their primary years, the likelihood of that continuing is there.”