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ABSENTEEISM PART II ‘Showing them we care’ Chronic absenteeism data elide and obscure multiple local issues


Special to The Press

The release of a recent report by the American Enterprise Institute and the availability of collated federal data on chronic absenteeism at ReturnToLearnTracker.net have created greater public awareness of the issue of habitual truancy.

However, the AEI report tells only part of the story. We dug into the details of the federal data and spoke with school district officials and school administrators across the Lehigh Valley to find out more about chronic absenteeism and how local schools are handling it.

Part I of this two-part series discussed federal absenteeism data and its shortcomings. This week, Part II covers individual district and school efforts to improve attendance, as well as community partner truancy prevention programs.

Dr. Jack Silva, Bethlehem Area School District superintendent, notes the variety of issues mentioned in the AEI report that sparked this series are relevant to life in the Lehigh Valley.

“It looked at a lot of different factors, including the fear factor - families in multigenerational homes, or lacking health insurance, or single-income parents not being able to afford to get sick,” Silva said.

He noted after BASD stopped offering the “eClassroom” option of virtual attendance, there were families who still wanted the perceived safety of attending school virtually.

Looking at attendance issues today, superintendents see some persistent problems and some problems that are on the rise.

Chris Schiffert, assistant superintendent at Whitehall-Coplay School District, said social and emotional issues have been increasing steadily as a reason for absence.

“There are a lot of situations, where, unfortunately, there could be social, emotional problems that kids are experiencing, so it is physical in a sense, but it deals with the interactions they have at school with peers, whether it be bullying-related” or misunderstandings between friends,” he said.

“Parents today are advocating for their children more than ever and attendance issues could be related to emotional distress of the child. We see that more and more.”

Whitehall-Coplay has a lower chronic absenteeism rate (by federal definition) than the statewide average.

Schiffert said his district’s relatively small size helps administrators tackle attendance issues.

“We’re not super-small but we’re not so big that we don’t have a general handle on things going on in our buildings,” Schiffert said. “Our assistant principals and all our staff are very in tune with what’s going on.

“There’s a lot of effort put into weekly meetings [ … and] when attendance issues start to creep in, we get to the bottom of those issues as soon as we can.”

Jennifer Holman, Northwestern Lehigh School District superintendent, also credits her district’s manageable size for its well-below average chronic absenteeism rates.

“It’s the relationships we have with our families and our students,” she said. “Our building administrators, teachers and staff know our students by name.

“They know our kids’ faces, and how they get to school - whether they’re coming off the bus, or whether they’re dropped off. It’s that connection.”

Geographic, economic issues

Due to the locations of the four Northwestern Lehigh schools, the district has no students who walk to school. Urban schools faced attendance challenges on days with bad weather, particularly at the high school level, long before COVID.

Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Silva said transportation is one of the key areas on which his district is focusing.

State regulations say that in an area with sidewalks, an elementary-aged child does not qualify for bus service unless he lives one mile or more from the school. For a middle- or high schooler, that distance is two miles.

“We expect a 6-year-old to walk eight-tenths of a mile from the Five Points neighborhood in Bethlehem to Fountain Hill Elementary in the rain,” Silva said.

“That does not contribute to regular school attendance.”

BASD makes $1 LANTA bus passes available for purchase, but Silva notes city bus schedules are not designed with school start times in mind.

“Unless you’re in a major city, public transportation is not a complete solution to equity issues,” he said.

Silva said BASD is exploring ways existing district buses can be used to the maximum - looping back to pick up students who missed their scheduled bus time, for example, as well as exploring ride-sharing strategies.

The appeal of the virtual environment

Sometimes the in-person environment truly is too emotionally distressing for a child.

“If we can get a kid into our own district online learning program, that’s a good thing,” Schiffert said. “If it’s unsuccessful in improving engagement, the shift to online education can help a family recognize the other barriers that exist, and the district is an active partner in that process.”

Schiffert was asked whether seeing parents telecommute discourages children from finding in-person education worthwhile.

He replied the opposite can be the case. If parents are working multiple jobs or extra shifts, for example, they may not be able to monitor whether their children get on the school bus.

“Every kid is different. Every situation is different,” Schiffert replied. “There are various things that work for some kids that don’t work for others.

“It’s really just the school working to find what works for that child.”

Supporting attendance at the building level

Building administrators agree student attendance improvement conferences (SAICs) are vital in getting to the bottom of attendance barriers.

Mike Rile, assistant principal at Whitehall High School, said he finds productive “the attendance meetings where I find out about a dynamic that’s happening in school - a conflict with another student that needs to have a restorative conversation [or] a conflict with a teacher […] When we have the family come in, that is where that good conversation happens.”

Rile said technology updates have made it easier to reach parents through the channels they use most often.

“Whitehall has implemented a new messaging system, connected through our student information system, that allows teachers, counselors, etc., to message parents via email, text, and through the app.”

Parents also receive automated alerts the morning of each day of absence through the PowerSchool system, but Rile finds the enhanced personalized messaging component more powerful.

Another tactic used in Whitehall-Coplay School District is making virtual SAICs available to facilitate attendance for parents who work long days or work out of town.

Rile agrees with officials at other districts that the information uncovered during a SAIC is crucial to removing attendance challenges.

Whitehall-Coplay administrators don’t hesitate to take a personal approach.

“Sometimes it’s just educating the child on knowing how to set an alarm,” Rile added. “I’ve done it multiple times, and Gabe [Dillard, principal of Zephyr ES] has done it - taken a phone out and set the alarm with the kid.

“It’s showing them that we care enough to have this conversation.

“There’s plenty of research that suggests that if kids feel connected to at least one adult, attendance improves.

“It’s having those conversations, so the kid knows, ‘Hey, they care about me.’ Sometimes it’s something as simple as a kid looking forward to coming to school.”

Families are more likely to be motivated to come to their children’s schools if they see them also solving a family problem.

According to Silva, housing instability is a factor in absenteeism.

“Families face housing instability because of escalating rents and a real housing shortage,” he said. “So, it isn’t surprising when a family has to move in with a relative in Allentown for a while, and misses school during the transition.”

One thing that helps alleviate these problems in the BASD is the United Way-sponsored Community School approach.

Seven BASD elementary schools and two middle schools with a high proportion of low-income families have full-time community school coordinators.

These coordinators help principals with parent outreach and other family supports.

Community partners such as St. Luke’s and housing advocates (with housing vouchers) come to the community schools so they can easily reach families who need them.

More information on Community Schools, including how to donate, is available at unitedwayglv.org/united-way-community-schools.

Although Freedom and Liberty high schools do not qualify for Community School partnerships, Silva said they have their own partnerships to bring community resources into the schools.

Issues outside

the school

Many issues that keep students from coming to school fall outside the purview of school districts and school principals.

Districts make connections from providers to families and students who need additional support.

One such provider is Valley Youth House, a nonprofit organization offering family support in several areas.

Lehigh County has contracted with Valley Youth House to provide truancy intervention services for the Allentown and the Whitehall-Coplay school districts.

Kyle Borowski, Child Welfare and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy program supervisor, explains the work his team does.

“Schools can provide some help in many situations for students who want their help,” he said.

He gave examples of 504 plans and individualized education programs to help ensure academic success, mediation for bullying or peer conflict situations, and school-based counseling through contracted providers such as Valley Youth House, St. Luke’s, Lehigh Valley Health Network, and Center for Humanistic Change. However, sometimes students need more.

“Counseling provided at school is just the student,” he said. “With any one-on-one therapy, the student goes home to a family system that is not being supported to make changes, so they’re trying to navigate it on their own.”

Family-based therapy programs outside the school can help in these situations.

Family-based truancy intervention programs are funded through Magellan Medical Assistance (using Medicaid) or through the county Children and Youth Services department.

“The only caveat is the wait lists,” Borowski said. “That has been a problem in Pennsylvania as long as I can remember.”

Valley Youth House truancy intervention programs last three months, with the availability of a second three-month period if a family would benefit from it.

It is a voluntary program, however, and families are not compelled to participate or to continue participating.

Borowski said, however, that engagement is increasing, from roughly 20 percent of referred families engaging in recent years to closer to 40 percent this year.

“Truancy intervention is always a hard sell because families don’t always believe it’s an issue,” he said.

He was asked to describe some successes.

“In a lot of cases, it comes down to helping the family find new ways to meet their needs,” Borowski said.

He noted concrete needs are easier to meet on a six-month time horizon.

He mentioned food stamps, rental assistance, temp agencies, and Title 20 child care as resources that Valley Youth House helps families use.

“When those concrete needs are met, parents’ stress level goes down, and they’re able turn to their child and say, ‘Time for homework. Time for bed. Time to get up and go to school.’”

Social, emotional issues are thornier

“If there was one thing that I could snap my fingers and have exist for every family we work with, it would be the recognition that youth can do difficult things,” Borowski explained.

He noted a top reason for truancy is the perception of school as an unsupported environment.

“We have kids who say, ‘I can’t learn’ when what they need is help learning, or ‘I can’t solve problems with my peers,’ when what they need is help building that skill,” Borowski said.

He described the “Reaching Teens” program, in which Valley Youth House teaches the “nine C’s” - including competence, confidence and capability.

“If the student walks into the classroom having those, they’re willing to tolerate getting answers wrong, because they think, ‘Eventually, I’ll get the answers correct,’” he said. “They walk out of class believing that they can manage current and future challenges.

“Part of what our caseworkers are doing is helping folks realize things that are difficult are not necessarily bad or unwanted,” Borowski said. “So, encouraging a student to sit down with a school counselor and have a mediation with a peer may not be easy, but the rewards or benefits could be incredible.”

Those missing social interaction skills, and the fear that can come with not having them, are the result of COVID that Borowski has noticed most.

“Kids who had early elementary years during COVID and did all their learning and social interactions online or remote, have not had as many opportunities to develop relationship problem-solving skills,” he said. “As a result, we’re probably seeing an uptick of students who are missing school to avoid a peer relationship that is not currently positive.

“In the past, they would have had more opportunities to build those skills.”

press photo courtesy pa. dept. of education Truancy intervention is always a hard sell, because families don't always believe it's an issue.
Dr. Jack Silva is the superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District. The district is pursuing strategies in five different areas, including communication, transportation and health services, to cut chronic absenteeism. PRESS photo courtesy BASD
Chris Schiffert is the assistant superintendent of the Whitehall-Coplay School District. His district uses phone and Zoom attendance improvement conferences to meet the needs of parents who work long hours out of town. PRESS Photo courtesy Whitehall-Coplay SD
Mike Rile is an assistant principal at Whitehall High School. He and his colleagues take a personal approach to student attendance, striving to make school somewhere their students look forward to going. Photo courtesy Whitehall-Coplay SD
Kyle Borowski is a licensed professional counselor at Valley Youth House with a background in cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as eco-systemic family therapy and several trauma-informed therapy models. Photo courtesy Valley Youth House