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DHS News October 2012

School Outreach – Boosting Attendance to Help Students Succeed

Allegheny County reported a 9.7% truancy rate in the 2010-2011 school year, a 22% increase in truant students over the previous year. Research shows that truant students are more likely to face academic failure, poor social and emotional functioning, ethnic or race dissonance, health problems and an inability to feel a part of their school culture. In addition, truant students are less likely to graduate from high school, placing them at a greater risk of poverty, homelessness and incarceration as adults. 

Simply speaking, in order to succeed in school, students need to be in school.

In an attempt to curb the number of truant and chronically absent students, the county has adopted recommendations of the Pennsylvania Children’s Roundtable's Educational Stability and Truancy Prevention Workgroup, which has identified five core components of any successful approach to truancy: collaboration among stakeholders, creation of a positive school climate, focus on prevention and early intervention, data tracking and sharing, and building sustainable funding bases.  This workgroup, led by Judge Woodruff from Allegheny County Children’s Court, represents a strong working collaboration with stakeholders from Children’s Court, Department of Human Services, legal organizations, district magistrates, educational institutions and other nonprofits. Key partners included Child Watch, KidsVoice, Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Youth Advocate Program and Community Empowerment Association.

With assistance from a grant by the Federal Children’s Bureau, DHS staff from the Office of Data Analysis, Research, and Evaluation (DARE); the Office of Behavioral Health (OBH); and the Office of Office of Community Relations (OCR) targeted their efforts to support this roundtable workgroup, by providing the framework for a pilot program focused on positive attendance and educational outcomes. Developing a pilot program in support of the efforts of the Educational Stability and Truancy Prevention Workgroup is the signature project of the grant. The model is intended to divert families from both the magisterial process and child welfare involvement. All parties agree: the key to addressing poor school attendance and truancy is early identification and intervention along with effective services to deal with the underlying issues leading to absence from school.

This new program, called Focus on Attendance, is modeled after a similar effort in Lycoming County that emphasizes a prevention mode in its approach to poor school attendance. The Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) District was chosen as the target district for the program because there is a significant overlap of students in PPS and children involved with DHS. (In 2011, 36% of students in PPS were involved with DHS.)  The schools selected as potential sites for the initial operation of the model program are schools which have experienced chronic absences (more than 10 days absent per school year) ranging from 16% to 38%. Target schools, Pittsburgh King and Manchester, were chosen based on Lycoming’s model, which focused on working with younger students.

Carlena Jenkins, formerly School Based Liaison in the Office of Behavioral Health (OBH), has been appointed as School Outreach Specialist (SOS) for this new program.

“I am excited to have the opportunity to continue to work for DHS, but I will split my time between two public schools. Hopefully, I will be able to show that children will attend school more consistently if we intervene earlier and offer resources that they need. If students and families are already involved with services at DHS, I will act as a connection to those formal services and make sure that communication is happening on behalf of the child. After all, the biggest predictor of school success is consistent attendance!” said Carlena of her new role.

As the SOS, Carlena will receive information from school staff on youth with more than three unexcused absences or excessive excused absences. Once these youth are identified, Carlena will work with both the child and his or her family to gain a better understanding of the obstacles that are causing the absences. Carlena will be available to connect the student and family to resources that support a plan for the identified child to attend school more consistently. 

“Children who miss school are at a higher risk for a number of negative behaviors, like substance abuse, unwanted pregnancies, unemployment and incarceration,” said Carlena. “We really hope that by catching truant youth early and finding ways to improve their attendance we can greatly improve their chances for future success.”

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