Wayne County’s public school districts might be athletic rivals, but they’ve all unified around a shared goal this fall: increasing student attendance.
Western Wayne, Nettle Creek, Northeastern Wayne, Centerville-Abington and Richmond shared the cost of a billboard campaign, and videos are launching on social media to emphasize the value of being in school.
School attendance is a frequent topic for Wayne County Safety Commission, according to Brent Baker, Richmond Community Schools’ chief of elementary education.
The commission, co-chaired by Baker and Wayne County Sheriff Randy Retter, meets every other month and discusses issues that school systems face. In addition to school officials, the commission includes representatives from a variety of professions, such as criminal justice staff in probation and prosecution, local police and fire departments, paramedics and emergency management.
In the spring, commission members were frustrated about “so many kids in Wayne County missing a significant amount of time,” Baker said, noting some with absences of 30, 40 or even 50 days.
More than 200 RCS students missed 20 days of school or more in 2022-2023.
Smaller Wayne County districts also had “frequent flyers” missing similar amounts of instruction, Baker said.
In the 2022-23 school year, 275 Hagerstown Jr.-Sr. High students had at least three absences for illness with no documentation; 171 students had five such absences; seven had 20 or more; and one had 48, Principal Josh Hallatt told the Nettle Creek school board in June.
Northeastern Superintendent Matthew Hicks said, “We are trying to get out the message that we are back in business full time. We’ve seen some egregious attendance not just here but across the county.”
Centerville-Abington Superintendent Mike McCoy said the district’s attendance “isn’t terrible,” and administrators are pleased that all four CACS buildings had more than 90% attendance last year. However, because there’s always room for improvement, the district joined the countywide campaign.
McCoy said as more students seek to transfer across the county instead of staying at their neighborhood school, it’s important for school districts to be consistent on attendance, and for students to have a good track record.
Administrators are looking closely at prospective students’ attendance records before approving transfers, McCoy said. Districts can deny a transfer request if a student has previously been expelled or has attendance issues.
Beyond the disappointment of a denied transfer application, parents also can be held accountable for their children’s poor attendance. Wayne County educators don’t want any parent to face criminal charges related to attendance, Baker said, but that occasionally happens.
On Aug. 2, Wayne Circuit Court Judge April Drake found probable cause for a 35-year-old Centerville woman to face two counts each of neglect of a dependent (Level 6 felony) and compulsory school attendance law violation (B misdemeanor). Her bail was set at $7,500, 10% cash authorized, and a jury trial was scheduled for Oct. 31.
Parents are more likely to be prosecuted in educational neglect cases when children are young, McCoy said.
When he was assistant principal at Centerville Senior High School, he worked with Wayne County prosecutor’s office as needed, and sent one of their letters to parents when concerns arose. That letter usually resolved attendance issues, he said.
Centerville is now conducting more home visits to find out why families are struggling with attendance, McCoy said, and when students are making bad decisions, CACS sets up group meetings to try to get the student back on track. The district now has two school resource officers who get involved when needed.
McCoy noted that Centerville schools have now revised their district policy to include elementary students so that all buildings are consistent regarding an unacceptable number of missed days. Letters are now being sent at all grade levels if students have too many tardies and/or absences.
Baker, who has been a school administrator since 2009, said schools have always dealt with student attendance concerns, but the volume of those concerns has increased since the pandemic.
He sees several factors leading to those missed days, such as parents who don’t want to fight with their kids about attendance, kids who skip without their parents’ knowledge, or parents who are struggling themselves for various reasons such as addiction or mental health and want someone home with them during the day.
Administrators worry about meeting missing students’ hunger, social and instructional needs. They also are concerned about classroom management when students have different knowledge levels, and teachers devoting extra time to catching those students up and processing makeup work.
Because Centerville’s junior and senior high operate on a block schedule, students are losing 90 minutes of instruction per class missed.
“Any day missed is a day missed out,” McCoy said.
So, instead of “bellyaching” to the prosecutor’s office and begging for enforcement help late in the school year, Baker said Wayne County school leaders decided to take a proactive approach to educate families about the importance of regular attendance before school began. They searched social media for other attendance campaigns to emulate.
School officials secured a discount for billboards featuring a green-yellow-red guide to show families how many days missed are acceptable versus detrimental to learning. The billboards showed unity with all five school district logos.
Bridget Hazelbaker, RCS’ communications and marketing coordinator, also began creating a series of short videos featuring police officers, superintendents, school employees and residents from around the county who emphasize the benefits of attendance. Videos are being released throughout the school year on social media platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and X, formerly Twitter, to keep the message in front of parents and teens.
And, educators are trying to expand feeder programs to get students connected to extracurricular activities at younger ages. They value those activities as extra motivation to attend school. Baker said he’s pleased that RHS’ football team has increased in size and a significant percentage of students participate in music.
Educators want parents to know that missing a lot of days at any age can make a lasting impact on school success. Poor attendance in early grades can stymie children from learning to read at a third-grade level. That level of literacy is considered a critical threshold for future learning in a variety of subjects.
Economic development officials also note that good school attendance habits at young ages carry over to the workforce.
Baker said safety commission members are hopeful the campaign will result in good attendance statistics at the end of the first nine weeks. He believes it’s a positive sign that RCS had fewer student no-shows than usual, with many enrolled and attending school on Day 1 or 2.
Each school district handles its own attendance concerns, but all follow state guidelines for addressing potentially egregious situations. Schools are to report any student who misses 10% of the year, or 18 days, to Indiana Department of Education for chronic absenteeism concerns, no matter the reason.
RCS plans to utilize both personnel and technology to communicate with families this fall when a concern arises. A program called ParentSquare can send texts to alert parents about missed days. RCS attendance liaisons Vagas Ferguson and Matt Fisher also will be in touch with students and families as needed.
Educators realize students might miss a few days for illnesses such as flu, but they’re concerned about repeated absences for allergies or sprained wrists. Baker said they’ll require notes from medical providers for what they believe are attendance policy abuses.
Although RCS created its own police department this fall, Baker said officers won’t be out tracking down children because officers are needed to protect the buildings. He said local police departments and Wayne County Sheriff’s Office are willing to help with attendance concerns, but those departments also don’t have enough personnel to track down kids in the community.
School is Cool campaign continuing
Last spring, Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce awarded prizes in 26 schools to recognize students with excellent attendance. In addition to the annual car/scholarship giveaway for graduating seniors, a prize drawing took place in each school building.
Chamber members and partners donated 12 bicycles, seven electric scooters, and six four-pack passes to Indiana Beach for the drawings. WCACC’s School is Cool campaign is returning this school year.
For more information, contact chamber staff at wcareachamber.org or 765-962-1511.
WWN’s Bob Hansen contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 6 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.