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Truancy program helps students get back on the right track

by Betsy Myers

CORRESPONDENT

A student in Mineral County recently had an attendance problem and also wasn't coming to school on time.

The situation continued for a number of days and escalated through the education system.

The solution: The student simply needed an alarm clock.

Identifying that problem sounds simple enough now. But it took some out-of-the-box thinking to get there.

Truancy Diversion Services, the agency that helped get that student back on track, was designed to come up with those kinds of answers and does so regularly throughout the North Central West Virginia region.

The program administered by Burlington United Methodist Family Services, Inc. and funded through a grant by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, tackles the age-old problem of truancy in schools.

The program originated as part of Burlington's social services in Mineral County nearly six years ago. Last November, Truancy Diversion teams began working in Doddridge, Harrison, Marion and Monongalia counties, expanding from the original five-county region that encompasses Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Mineral and Taylor.

Truancy Diversion Services workers assist students between ages 6 and 16, as well as their families. Participation is voluntary, and consent from a parent or guardian is necessary.

"Our objective is to be an early intervention program," said Angie Wagner, Region I Truancy Diversion Services supervisor from Salem. "We want to intercede as early as possible -- especially within the first five days missed without an excuse."

State laws define truancy as five consecutive absences or 10 unexcused absences during a school year.

"We believe that the earlier we start working with (students), the more successful the outcomes as far as graduating and staying in school," Wagner said.

Wagner quoted statistics that indicate a link between elementary-age truancy and a higher risk of these same students dropping out of school.

A 1996 "Manual to Combat Truancy" report prepared cooperatively by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice identifies truancy as one of the first signs of trouble in children. The report documents the correlation between truancy, crime, and unemployment rates, noting that truant students are more likely to be involved in crimes including burglary and vandalism.

High truancy rates result in increased high school dropout rates, which more than doubles the likelihood of dependence on welfare, according to the report.

In West Virginia's participating counties, students who are identified as at-risk or who have attendance problems are referred to local county truancy case workers by county attendance coordinators, teachers, DHHR caseworkers, principals, and other county and state authorities.

Caseworkers manage from 20 to 25 cases, Wagner said.

Judy Schillace, attendance director for the Harrison County Board of Education, said many students who have been referred to the program have responded well to it.

"We're providing better services for students," said Schillace, also of Salem. She added that there is ample work to be done.

"Before (Truancy Diversion Services) it was just a 'Band-Aid' fix," Schillace said. "We couldn't do all that needed to be done. Now these workers are getting into the home, doing what we need to be doing -- which does so much good for the students and families."

Workers have even been known to get the kids out of bed and off to school on time.

In one case, a student intentionally missed the bus and used that as an excuse to miss school since the student's parent didn't have a car, said Heather Clevenger, a Truancy Diversion Social Worker in Harrison County. Clevenger said she drove the student to school that day.

"We can't force the child to go to school, but we can remind them of the consequences of not going," said Clevenger, of Salem.

Each situation is unique.

"We work to get students on level academically through tutoring, boosting academics, helping with family situations, making home visits, getting involved in literacy education and special summer programs," Wagner said.

"We want to get student's actively involved in the learning process."

Reasons for truancy are varied: From an outward cry for help or attention, to family issues, to simple things that most people take for granted, Truancy Diversion workers say.

Clevenger said she has helped families in need of basics such as food and money.

"I've linked them with resources so that they can get what they need. We don't do it for them, we empower them with information so they can do for themselves," Clevenger said.

Help in navigating the social services system and pointing families in the right direction is a large part of the challenge, Wagner said.

Programs such as United Way and Family Resource Networks have been invaluable when meeting needs of each child or family, Wagner said.

"We want to empower families by giving them alternatives. We want to teach them the value of education. Our staff cares, watches, and pays attention. Sometimes that's enough to keep people on the straight-and-narrow. We want to inspire," Wagner said.

Clevenger said seeing the results is an added benefit.

"One of the greatest rewards for me is when (I've) helped a family through a challenging situation and the family comes out better on the other side," Clevenger said.

"It takes a long time to build relationships with parents," Clevenger said, "but once they realize you're there to help the relationship improves."

Added Wagner, "truancy is just one symptom of other things that are going on with the child or family. It's a symptom of other underlying issues.

"We want to educate families on attendance policies in order to bring their attention to the situation and make them aware that excuses for absences are needed," Wagner said.

"We want to educate the family by empowering them to take control and place value on education and what it means for the child and (his or her) education," Wagner said.

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