HAMLET — Chronic absences have dipped again at Richmond County schools, even though about one-fourth of students still missed 10 to 19 days during the 2017-18 school year.
Gains during the most recent school year were greatest at the middle school level, said Associate Superintendent Jeff Maples, who delivered a graphics-filled presentation to School Board members Thursday. In only one school did chronic absences rise: the Ashley Chapel Educational Center, the district’s alternative school.
Even the newly dispersed Cordova School students seem to be more likely to attend class at neighborhood schools. Their chronic absences (20-plus days missed) dropped from 31 percent — or nearly one day out of three — to 15 percent, and absences of 10 to 19 days dropped from 26 percent to 24 percent.
“We’re sort of ahead of the curve” in examining chronic absences, said Superintendent Cindy Goodman, adding that she was concerned about statistics that Maples did not break out. She said those data indicated difficulty getting kindergartners and pre-K students to attend school regularly.
Addressing improving districtwide figures, Goodman said, “26 percent of our children missing 10 days is still unacceptable to us.”
Last June, the School Board voted to drop from 30 to 20 the number of excused and unexcused absences a student could rack up and still be promoted.
The new policy wasn’t meant to penalize students who fall ill, school officials said then. The district offers such students ways for them to catch up with their work.
But children who miss 20 days here and there, creating no dayslong patterns, now are subject to intense monitoring by teachers, principals, social workers, counselors and school nurses. And, possibly, District Attorney Reece Saunders, who has pledged to bring truancy cases to court attention when necessary.
The district began monitoring attendance closely during the 2013-14 school year, after School Board member Jerry Etheridge asked Goodman how well the district tracked absences. After the conversations, district officials realized they could tell how many children came to school, but they couldn’t pinpoint who made a habit of not attending.
After that year, Maples said, district officials realized “we had a good idea (of who was absent) but didn’t have a policy that meshed” with the intent of reducing the number of students playing hooky or being kept at home too often.
Then began the bow-tie clubs, bicycle drawings and T-shirt giveaways to provide children with incentive to attend, as well as the calls home to ask parents where their absent children were.
“We want kids to be in school because they’re excited about learning and don’t want to miss anything,” Maples said, but if that alone won’t bring them in, the schools must use other means.
“It takes some discipline to want to get up and be in school every day,” Maples admitted. “And it takes some (adult) support.
“People have situations that, for them, are crises.
“You don’t want to judge people; you want to encourage them. But at the end of the day, they have to be held accountable for getting their children to school.”
Maples said the school community had responded well to the drive for better attendance, “but we still have some work to do.”
“We’re not that different from any other school district,” he said. What’s different is that Richmond County Schools saw what was happening before it became a cause celebre in academic circles — and moved to do something about it.
“We have a lot to be proud of,” Maples told board members, “but we know we have a lot of work in front of us.”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]