State law defines habitual truancy as 10 or more unexcused absences in one school year. Baker said he wouldn’t characterize the dropping number as a trend until he has five years of data but feels the district is headed in the right direction.
Baker began tracking truancy when he came to the district in the 2012-13 school year. That year, 261 students across the district had 10 or more unexcused absences. That number dropped to 244 last school year and looks to be on track to be lower again by the end of this school year, he said.
Baker made a presentation to the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board recently and said last year at this time, 86 students had received 10-day truancy notices and right now the district has sent out 68.
Baker said in an interview that school administrators are making a greater effort to bring parents into the loop earlier in the process than they did before.
“Schools are much more engaged,” he said. “They contact parents right away instead of waiting until a student is habitually truant.”
Schools send out letters after the third, fifth and seventh day. Parents also get an automated call at the end of the day when their child has an unexcused absence.
Rio Rancho High principal Richard VonAncken said the school has also seen some improvement since refocusing its efforts on unexcused absences. Last year, the school held a meeting for parents of excessively truant students and invited a local judge to come and speak with them. He said contacting family and students immediately after an unexcused absence occurs has also been key.
“Our attendance secretary is relentless in getting a hold of parents and students,” he said.
Bryan Garcia, principal of Puesta del Sol Elementary, said this year the school has been more vigilant about monitoring tardies and both excused and unexcused absences. He said they have seen the number of five and seven-day notices cut in half when compared with last school year.
“We just don’t let it get to a certain point,” he said. “We will contact parents if we see an excessive pattern, even if the absences are excused.”
It’s a delicate balance, he said, and sometimes the inquiry into excused absences angers parents. He said he’s had to learn to be more diplomatic.
“It’s very much a call of concern to see if the family needs help,” he said. “This is not about a truancy officer getting involved.”
But when it comes to unexcused absences, Baker said the district’s truancy officer will eventually become involved. Parents with habitually truant students can be prosecuted, but Baker said the goal is to address the situation before it ever gets to that point.
“After the fifth unexcused absence, the truancy officer takes over,” Baker said. “They may personally call or visit the home to determine why the student is not going to school.”
Baker said the main cause of truancy they see is substance abuse either from the parent or student or both. The first step of the truancy officer, he said, is to determine whether children are being abused and neglected. If so, that gets reported to the state Children, Youth and Families Department. After that, he said the next step is offering services and support to the family.
“Our main goal is not to punish the family,” he said. “We want to align families with appropriate resources to get them back on track.”