LORAIN — The 13-year-old seventh-grader had 15 absences since August when Markell Young, a Lorain Schools safety and compliance officer, visited her home March 4.
The girl’s grandmother, who said she has custody of the girl and her three sisters, said the girl’s mother is an addict and her father is in jail.
“She’s using every excuse she can,” the grandmother told Young. “I don’t know what to do with her.”
Young, whose mother had him when he was 17 and was raised by his grandmother, was sympathetic and encouraging. He vowed to get the girl counseling and mentoring at her middle school.
“She’s going to need all the support she can get,” he told the grandmother. “The things that have happened in her past, you can’t let that be her crutch either. Because, ultimately, the world is not going to care when she’s 25 and looking for a job.”
Young is on the front lines of the school district’s battle to reduce truancy and improve attendance. The district significantly increased truancy enforcement beginning in August. School leaders say it’s working.
Lorain has failed to meet the 93 percent Ohio attendance minimum the last four years, but attendance was 94 percent in the first semester this year compared to nearly 93 percent in the first semester last year. Annual attendance was 90 percent in the 2012-13 school year. Improving attendance is part of overall academic improvement efforts in response to last year’s state takeover of academics by a state Academic Distress Commission.
In previous years, reducing truancy was just part of the job of Young and fellow safety and compliance offer Micah Gibbs. They now spend nearly all of their time on increasing district attendance.
Young said he averages between 50 and 100 visits per week to the homes of children with high absences. In previous years, it was four or five.
Four absences in a semester usually trigger a visit. However, if a student who had good attendance shows a disturbing pattern of absences, Young said it could be less than four.
Some visits are a few minutes. Others may take as long as 45 minutes.
Some are resolved as simply as providing the child with an alarm clock. In one case, a mother whose husband had been fatally shot in a street crime was afraid to have her son walk a few blocks to an elementary school in the morning because it was dark. While the boy wasn’t eligible for busing, Young made arrangements to provide him busing due to the boy’s unusual circumstances.
Young has visited elementary and high school students’ homes, but primarily visits middle school students’ homes. Gibbs visits the homes of alternative and high school students.
Young works out of Gen. Johnnie Wilson Middle School and Longfellow Middle School. He said reducing truancy at the middle school level is crucial to boosting graduation rates.
He said most elementary school students want to attend school, and are more likely to develop bad attendance habits in middle school. By high school, it’s often too late to change them. Attendance has been lowest at the Credit Recovery Academy, an alternative school for struggling high school students.
At Johnnie Wilson, Principal Michael Scott said the goal is 95 percent attendance. The school was at 96 percent in the first semester compared to 94.5 percent in the first semester in 2012. Scott said improving attendance is a collaborative achievement among parents, staff and students.
“Now that we’re getting them here, we’ve got to really provide them with that quality education to keep them coming,” he said. “Once they come in, they’re excited about learning and we make learning irresistible. If we make the learning irresistible, kids will come.”
Besides home visits, the schools try to give students incentives on days when attendance is traditionally low, such as on a Friday before a Monday holiday. Casual dress days, sports jersey dress days or pizza parties are among the incentives. Students with perfect, or near perfect, attendance get certificates and some students and their parents get free tickets to Cleveland Cavaliers basketball games.
Young said when he sees a pattern of absences, he speaks with students and parents. Young, a 41-year-old father of two young children and a daughter and stepdaughter in college, said he makes it personal.
He tells students and their parents that he has only had two absences since Lorain Schools hired him in 2009. One was for a funeral and one was to take one of his children to the hospital. He also shows parents his children’s perfect attendance certificates.
“They want real people and real things,” Young said. “They want to know that I also have to get up and get a kid up for school.”
Young said he realizes that being raised by his grandmother, he could have become a statistic in what critics call the “schools to prison pipeline.” Young, who has a criminal justice degree, saw it firsthand as a guard for six years at the Lorain Correctional Institution, where some inmates were as young as 16 or 17. He said many inmates said their problems began when they started skipping school.
“When you hear those stories, over and over and over again, you start seeing a pattern,” Young said. “It drives me.”
Young said he tries not to be confrontational with parents, but doesn’t hesitate to tell them if he believes they’re not doing a good job. Young said some don’t care, but many are trying.
“They need to know somebody’s there and somebody cares,” he said. “Somebody’s willing to come to their house and shake their hand and ask them what they can do to help.”
Young recalls one frustrated father of a middle school student calling him in the morning when his son refused to go to school. Young said he drove to the boy’s house, ordered him to get up and drove him to school after buying him breakfast along the way.
Young said he told the boy he didn’t have to get him, but was there because he cared. He said the boy’s attendance has improved.
Another boy who previously had good attendance began skipping school after dating a girl with whom he smoked marijuana. Young said he was able to get the boy back in school and back on the wrestling team, and his attendance has improved.
Young said there’s a story behind every truant child. Young said his mission is deeper than just improving attendance, particularly with troubled children like the girl whose house he visited March 4.
“Times like that are when you have the opportunity to save somebody’s life,” he said. “If we do nothing, what happens in five years?”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or email@example.com.
Lorain Schools leaders are putting a greater emphasis on truancy prevention this year as they seek to meet or exceed the state goal of 93 percent or more.
- 2009-10: 90.1 percent
- 2010-11: 91,2 percent
- 2011-12: 91 percent
- 2012-13: 90.5 percent
SOURCE: Lorain Schools