A Quarter Of New Orleans Students Are Chronically Absent, OPSB Turns To Community For Help

Feb 1, 2019

School attendence is a growing problem in Orleans Parish schools. According to the Orleans Parish School Board, nearly a quarter of Orleans Parish students were chronically absent last school year - meaning they missed more than 10 percent of the school year, or 15-18 days. Research shows missing that much school can have big consequences for students - from falling behind academically, to dropping out - even incarceration. The Orleans Parish School Board is turning to the community to help get kids back in school. WWNO's Jess Clark spoke about the initiative with Angela Wiggins Harris, who runs OPSB's child welfare and attendance office.

Below is a Q&A based on their conversation. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: What is the problem members in the community and the OPSB are trying to solve?

We're trying to solve the problem of school attendance. And that takes on two forms: truancy - those are kids who are just not going to school because they're being kids; we call it skipping school. Then there is the problem of chronic absenteeism - those are kids who are legitimately excused, as well as unexcused absences for 15-18 days, depending on the school's calendar. It includes things like suspensions. 

Q: What does chronic absenteeism look like in Orleans Parish - how many students are chronically absent?

For the 2016-2017 school year 21 percent of our student population was chronically absent. Last year, for the 2017-2018 year, 24.6 percent were chronically absent. So that means that we really need to tackle this problem.

"Last year 24 percent of students were chronically absent. So that means that we really need to tackle this problem" - Angela Wiggins Harris

Q: Why are almost a quarter of New Orleans kids regularly missing school?

There are a number of reasons. One, we have a number of kids who are involved in the juvenile justice system.  We also have a number of kids dealing with issues around poverty. Many of our families don't have stable housing, nd so they're shifting from one house to the next - and that contributes to why kids are not showing up for school. That number is growing. We also have kids who have untreated mental health issues. We have parents with mental health and substance abuse issues, and that impacts their ability to parent. Sometimes we have kids, especially middle school and older, who are caring for other children in their household. We also have kids who are caring for sickly parents and grandparents. Then there's the issue of engagement. Some kids are just not engaged in school, and don't have a desire to be in school. So that's something we need to figure out.

Q: Can you explain why instability in housing creates a problem getting to school?

If they're moving from house to house, that means we need to keep working with the school to change the bus stop. And then a lot of our families' phones get disconnected, or they run out of minutes, and then they don't have a way to call schools and say they need their bus stop changed. And we can't contact them to find out more information. It's a big problem. And the number of families with housing problems is growing every year.

Q: You all are pulling in a lot of community members in this new initiative - not just police, who have historically found students in the community and brought them back to school. Why are you involving other community members?

Police, like the schools, have a huge job. And they need help. We also know that there are retired people in the community who may see students just lingering in the neighborhood. There are businesses that kids may frequent during the day. There are libraries and parks and community centers where kids think they can go during the day. So it's really important for our community, our business owners to understand the significance of school attendance. And to understand that the district has measures in place so that if you see a child in the community who you suspect is missing school, you can call us.

Q: What happens at the truancy center when a student is brought in?

The truancy center is not a punitive consequence. Our truancy center is staffed with social workers who are here to work with students and families to understand what are the barriers that are keeping kids out of school. And then we work with the student, the family, and our schools to reengage the child in school. Are there needs that we can assist them with? Many times parents are saying that their kid needs mental health services. We also know that the more prosocial activities that kids are invovled in, the less likely they are to engage in negative behaviors. So we connect the kids to mentors and prosocial extracurricular activities. We also work with families to secure financial assistance, to secure housing, counseling, and medication. And then, we also work with the schools to understand, for instance, if it's behavior, then what are the driving behaviors that are causing this kid to have problems and maybe be suspended. 

If you see a child who you suspect is missing school, you can call the Orleans Parish Truancy Center at 504-218-5386.

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