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APS expands program to cut down on truancy

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — What makes fighting truancy so difficult is there is no single reason behind it, said Kris Meurer, executive director of Albuquerque Public Schools’ Student, Family, and Community Supports Division.

As part of its efforts to curb truancy, APS has expanded a small truancy-prevention pilot program from 12 schools to 23 this year. It differs from other district efforts because it involves APS social workers who help address factors causing students to be absent.

APS struggles with truancy. It had 13,941 habitually truant students, about 16 percent of its enrollment, in 2013 – the last year for which data is available. Students with 10 or more unexcused absences are considered habitually truant.

“Truancy is a symptom, not the disease,” Meurer said. She said when students miss school it is often the result of some other problem, such as teen pregnancy, chemical dependency on the part of the student or a parent and homelessness.

APS has created eight new social worker positions at a cost of $440,000 to staff the expanded program, spokesman Rigo Chavez said.

Principals and counselors can do a lot to help families, such as referring them to nearby social services. But there are times when social workers are needed to address more complex issues, said Ron Lucero, APS’ truancy manager. He added that work-study students from the University of New Mexico help by filing records and handling other paperwork.

Last year, the program was piloted at 12 schools with high truancy rates and it focused on 283 habitually truant students. This year, the 23 schools involved include eight high schools, seven middle schools and eight elementary schools – and will cover all the students at each school, Meurer said.

The pilot had mixed results last year. It was successful at curbing truancy among elementary and middle school students, but didn’t show success for high school students. Among the 12 schools, six elementaries and two middle schools showed improvement during the pilot’s first 80 days. One middle school showed no improvement, and truancy got worse at one middle school and two high schools.

For example, Apache Elementary’s truancy was cut in half during the 80 days. At Atrisco Heritage, truancy went up by about 25 percent.

Meurer said high school students often face tougher problems than students in middle or elementary school. For example, she said, school officials had to meet with a teen mother four times last year before they were able to solve the problems that were causing her to miss school, which included finding child care for her baby.

She also noted the high schools had as few as 10 students in the pilot, so a single truant student could distort the data.

The program, which also stresses early prevention, includes several levels of intervention by school officials and social workers. After two or three unexcused absences, a teacher or school official calls home to see why the student is missing class and what can be done about it. After five unexcused absences, another call is made.

If unexcused absences continue, a social worker sets up a face-to-face meeting with the student and his or her parents to create a truancy prevention plan. If the problem still isn’t resolved, a social worker meeting and sometimes a home visit are scheduled.

The last step is a final sit-down with the family and possible referral to the juvenile probation office.