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Lack of accountability cited as a cause of truancy

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

It’s stating the obvious to say students who consistently fail to show up for school are unavailable to learn the lessons teachers are trying to impart in the classroom – a situation that contributes to low literacy levels.

Truancy – or, as it is now called, chronic absenteeism – is defined as a student missing 10% of his or her school days, regardless of whether those absences are excused, unexcused or suspensions, said Richard Bowman, chief information and strategy officer for the Albuquerque Public Schools.

There were 80,109 students registered with APS, the largest school district in the state, during the 2019-2020 pre-pandemic school year. Of them, 16.1%, or roughly 12,900 students, were considered chronically absent, Bowman said.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to dealing with chronic absenteeism, which in itself can be multifaceted.

“It’s not typically one thing that causes chronic absenteeism. That’s why when we work with schools we try to define the root causes,” said Kristine Meurer, executive director for APS’ Student, Family and Community Supports Division.

Doctor appointments and illness are common, as are transportation issues, family obligations, tribal obligations or matters related to teen pregnancy. Also, when a family has to move from apartment to apartment, parents forget to withdraw their children, she said.

And when parents call the school attendance office, they are not required to provide details or give a reason, Meurer said.

A number of readers responding to the ongoing Journal Literacy Project cited the seemingly hands-off attitude toward attendance as allowing parents to become complacent and releasing them from accountability for their children’s absences.

In addition, some teachers say, the recently implemented Attendance for Success Act makes it more difficult for them to discern among those students who study through remote, online instruction, those who are on a hybrid remote and in-school cycle, those who are absent for medical reasons and those who are just cutting classes.

And there is no such thing anymore as a truancy court.

Madelyn Serna Marmol, APS’s associate superintendent for equity, instruction, innovation and support, said the truancy courts were abandoned in the 1990s, replaced by a push toward “a preventive and positive approach to working with students and families that have attendance concerns.”

The district has an Attendance Department that tracks students who are chronically absent, then keeps the schools updated and helps to contact the families to determine what issues may be contributing to chronic absenteeism. The department then helps locate resources to help those families, Marmol said.

The Attendance for Success Act requires that school attendance data be reported to the state Public Education Department. The data include the total number of days missed by each student, both excused and unexcused absences; and a calculated chronic absenteeism rate for each district and each student and student subgroup within that district, said PED spokeswoman Judy Robinson.

In addition, the act provides for interventions for students and families who need resources and support.

Under state statute, youths in New Mexico must remain in school – public, private or state institution – until age 18, unless that student has graduated from high school or received a high school equivalency credential, Robinson said.

A person between the ages of 16 and 18 may also leave school because of “personal hardship” when approved by the parent and the local school district superintendent or private school.

Students who continue to have unexcused absences after written notification to the families, according to the act, “shall be reported to the judicial district in which the student resides” and ultimately reported to the juvenile justice section of the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

“CYFD has a program where they work with families, and it’s nonpunitive,” Meurer said. CYFD will offer additional resources for families “so that those families can get their chronically absent kids back in school and keep them there.”

Because the process is new, “We’re still trying to figure out how we would make those referrals to CYFD and how we would work with them,” Meurer said.

CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said the new law was written in such a way to involve “meeting in the neutral environment of the school, where teachers, counselors and CYFD’s juvenile justice services can do an assessment of the family and the child’s needs.”

Resources and supports available could include providing tutoring, designing a new individualized educational plan, or arranging the services of medical, dental or behavioral health professionals, Moore-Pabst said.

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