Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 | 2 a.m.
A new pilot program initiated by the Clark County School District with assistance from partner organizations aims to solve a recurring problem in Las Vegas: Students missing school.
During the 2017-18 school year, for which the Nevada Department of Education has the latest data available, 20.7% of students in Clark County schools missed 18 or more school days, or 10% of the school year. The Department of Education considers those students chronically absent, putting them at risk of being held back or losing credit.
Truancy rates in Clark County are even higher for some subpopulations. About 31% of black students and Native American students were chronically absent in 2017-18. Nearly 29% of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) were chronically absent that year as well.
The causes of chronic absenteeism are multi-faceted and must be addressed through a communitywide, systemic approach, says assistant superintendent Tammy Malich. That’s why the district’s pilot program, which will go into effect this school year for 15 selected schools, will be done in partnership with the city of Las Vegas, the Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice Services, the Nevada Department of Education and the Regional Transportation Commission.
“We’re looking at the sense that this is bigger than the schools, bigger than what the principals can do,” Malich said.
Five elementary schools, five middle schools and five high schools were selected for participation based on their chronic absenteeism rates for the 2018-19 school year, Malich said. Those numbers aren’t publicly available yet because they haven’t been verified by the Department of Education.
But if 2017-18 numbers are any indication, schools selected for the pilot program face absenteeism rates well above the district average. For example, nearly half of all students at Chaparral High School were absent for 18 or more days during the 2017-18 school year. At Williams Elementary School, 37.5% of students were chronically absent in 2017-18. The chronic absenteeism rate at Orr Middle School was 35.5% that same school year.
New state policies could be driving up that data slightly, Malich said. Notably, the Department of Education changed the way it measures absenteeism in 2018. Now, absenteeism isn’t just based on absences from one school, but from any school in the district, thereby factoring in situations in which a student switches schools.
“In the new rules, a student must be enrolled 90 days across the district, whether at one school or many,” Malich said.
Clark County schools have a strong incentive as of late to reduce absenteeism: Since at least 2016, the Department of Education has factored chronic absenteeism into its annual School Report Cards, Malich said. In addition, the state adopted a federal definition of absences established in 2016, which doesn’t differentiate between unexcused absences and excused ones, such as when a student is sick.
“Now, even if there’s a reason, if a student is not in school getting instruction, they’re absent,” Malich said.
The pilot program will incorporate low-cost practices that have worked in other school districts to reduce chronic absenteeism rates across all grades and all students. It will also draw from the expertise of its partner organizations.
Director of the Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice Services Jack Martin sees a strong correlation between young people who miss school and young people who enter the criminal justice system. Based on his research and experience, knowing the “warning signs” that could drive students to skip school and get into trouble is key to solving the problem.
“What we know in juvenile justice is that kids don’t just make mistakes in a vacuum. They don’t all of a sudden turn 16 and start breaking a law. There’s lots of indicators,” Martin said.
Some students miss school because they face transportation challenges or go through a difficult period at home, such as an eviction. In other situations, simply educating parents about the importance of attending school could make a difference, Martin said.
It is also important for adults who work with kids to create a welcoming, supportive environment, he added. At the Department of Juvenile Justice Services, that means avoiding punishment as an intervention tactic and instead offering students services they might need. At a school, it might mean creating a positive school climate.
“There’s a ton of research that says the school’s climate and culture, how the principal runs their school, has huge impacts on kids wanting to be at school,” Martin said.
Seventh-grade teacher Francisco Sermeno, who teaches at Von Tobel Middle School where 31.8% of students were chronically absent in 2017-18, says the most common reason why his students miss school is because their families are transient, often due to financial stresses or poverty.
“It’s hard to go to school when you keep switching schools,” Sermeno said.
Students whose families are low-income might also be more likely to stay home from school to take care of a younger sibling, he said.
“When life gives you really tough circumstances, I feel like going to school isn’t priority No. 1, and how can it be?” Sermeno said.
To encourage kids to come to school, schools should provide resources and services other than just academic instruction, he said. For example, programs that allow kids to stay in school until the late afternoon or evening as well as counseling services seem to motivate at-risk students to show up, he said.
Although the pilot program isn’t set up to fund new counseling services and after-school programs (at least not right away), it will implement some low or no-cost changes, Malich said. For example, instead of receiving an automated message from the district in response to an unexcused absence, families at selected schools will receive a personalized recorded message from the student’s principal.
The school district and partner organizations are also in touch with area businesses, trying to educate them about their role in reducing chronic absenteeism, Martin said.
“Why is McDonald's serving cheeseburgers to kids at 9:30 a.m. when they’re supposed to be in school?” he said.
Because the pilot program is in a preliminary stage, the exact roles of all partner organizations haven’t been finalized yet. But the district has had conversations with the RTC about how the agency could incorporate messaging, stressing the importance of education onto its buses, Malich said.
“If we create marketing materials, they’ll post posters in RTC buses,” she said.
District officials are meeting with school leadership teams about the pilot program on Friday, Malich said.
The following is a list of schools selected to participate in the program, as well as their chronic absenteeism rates in 2017-18, according to the Department of Education:
Chaparral High School (48.9%)
Desert Pines High School (47.5%)
Canyon Springs High School (45.3%)
Del Sol High School (41.6%)
Cheyenne High School (38.9%)
Williams Elementary School (37.5%)
Manch Elementary School (37.2%)
Orr Middle School (35.5%)
Bailey Middle School (32.2%)
Von Tobel Middle School (31.8%)
Lowman Elementary School (31.3%)
Lynch Elementary School (30.1%)
Fremont Middle School (29.8%)
Tate Elementary School (27.7%)
Brinley Middle School (23.1%)