Truancy in Franklin County Part III

Teens & Attendance: High school students present whole new set of challenges

Joel Lehman

By Joel Lehman

Managing Editor

The Facts

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Editor’s note: This is the third part in a series of stories exploring truancy in Franklin County, and the work done by a panel of administrators and community members to combat absenteeism.

ST. ALBANS — Just four months into the job, Lindsey Tomlinson is discovering the many challenges when it comes to addressing truancy for high school students in Franklin County.

For one, she’s only funded through the Franklin-Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center for about 10 to 15 hours per week. Her caseload is currently five to six students, but she is hoping to build it to match the need locally.

Secondly, when it comes to getting a 16-year-old to go to school, there simply isn’t much incentive and almost no legal repercussion if the student doesn’t want to be there.

Tomlinson, a member of the Franklin County Truancy Intervention Panel, is finding it involves a collective effort to get teenaged students to go back to and finish school. For the organization, when addressing truancy at the high school level, the approach comes down to exhausting every available resource and taking a personal, vested interest on a student-by-student basis.

“We’re at a point now where a lot of the schools are starting to get on board with what we’re doing and that’s something in the Truancy Intervention Panel that we’ve been working on for awhile is getting this process set up. Everybody is so into it and feels so good about it and we’ve gotten our system down,” Tomlinson said Wednesday from her office at the Restorative Justice Center on Main Street in St. Albans.

When Tomlinson, a pretrial services monitor for Restorative Justice, began taking on the new position, there weren’t many cohesive resources in place for administrators to handle older students persistently absent from school. Typically, issues were addressed on a school-by-school basis, and frequently resolved with a note sent home and little follow up.

But in January, the Restorative Justice Center, in conjunction with the Franklin County Truancy Intervention Panel and Franklin County supervisory unions, found funding for the part-time high school truancy specialist.

The Franklin County Truancy Intervention Panel is a collaboration of educators, the Department for Children and Families (DCF), state’s attorney Jim Hughes, Franklin-Grand Isle Restorative Justice Center and Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS) specialists addressing the growing issue of truancy in Franklin County by meeting weekly to design a plan for truant students on a case by case basis.

The challenges in getting older student to come to school are much different than those for elementary-aged children. A whole new realm of independence comes with high school, and with that, depression, new friends, bullying and peer pressure. Responsibilities grow, both in the school and at home. Students often feel torn between joining the work force to help their family and losing out on wages while pursuing a degree.

Most importantly, the law allows for students in Vermont to leave high school at age 16. That means Tomlinson can reach out to students and parents. But in the end, there’s little she can do if families don’t want to work with her.

“That’s the thing. It really depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s up to what level of involvement the parents and the kids are comfortable with,” Tomlinson said.

Four months into the job she is only wading into the waters in working with administrators, principals and families in the community. But support from the high schools has been consistent and growing, she said.

“Students are more empowered. They’re more cognitively aware,” said Erik Remmers, the principal and Enosburg Falls Senior High School and a representative on the Truancy Intervention Panel. “They really have more power as whether an intervention is going to work or not. They can refuse to engage in a service or mental health counseling. If they refuse to get engaged in those things, there’s no real arm-twisting you’re going to be able to do.”

The good news, Remmers explains, is high school administrators in Franklin County are beginning to find solutions, which primarily center around flexibility in course credit while meeting students’ needs.

Students that need to work, for example, can attend class remotely in off school hours. Administrators can reach out to employers directly to find a compromise in work hours or course credits through internships.

“More and more personalization of learning, proficiency, those are the kinds of things we need to look into in our community,” Remmers said.

Both Remmers and Tomlinson suggest that a general dislike of school or the teachers often dissuade students from attending. Maybe a student has fallen behind in classwork. Rather than trying to catch up, they’re caught in a vicious cycle of staying away because they’re too far behind.

What are they doing all day? They’re home, playing video games or watching TV, Tomlinson said. Why can’t they get up for school? Because they were up all night playing video games. There’s no structure for the student. Often, it’s just that simple.

Tomlinson said mental health directly or indirectly affects most of the students in her caseload. And, as is the case with students of every age, poverty maintains a hold over youth whose families can’t arrange transportation.

For students who have been turned off to school, alternative learning programs have been successful, both currently and in the past, said Jeff Benay, TIP member and Director of Indian Education for the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union.

He adds that beyond the programs and flexibility schools must have to meet students’ needs, there’s one thing everyone must keep in mind when it comes to truancy: Everyone needs to be on board, and they need to be prepared to do whatever it takes.

“Whatever the hat needs to be. That’s where I think we’ve been really, really successful,” Benay said.

Benay, who has worked for 35 years in social service administration, cites Missisquoi Valley Union’s Nova program, an alternative, experientially-based learning system where students are actually interviewed before being accepted.

At MVU, the students in Nova have flourished, he said. Many students who never would have finished high school now have perfect attendance once they enter the program.

“Often times people say, ‘we don’t have the resources.’ The resources are not what they need to be given the challenges we face. But we are best using the resources we do have so there’s no excuse,” Benay said. “I think it comes down to thinking outside box.”

As of 2013-2014, the year with the most recent data available, the dropout rate in Vermont for grades 9-12 is 2.48 percent, according to the Vermont Agency of Education. The rate at BFA, St. Albans is 3.97 percent, Missisquoi Valley Union’s is 3.09 percent, Enosburg is 3.1 percent, and Richford’s is 8.8 percent according to the state’s methodology [the Messenger will take an in-depth look at the methodology of truancy data and its flaws in an upcoming article]. BFA-Fairfax is the only Franklin County school that has a dropout rate below the state average, at 1.52 percent.

Benay said that a closer look at the terminology used when it comes to looking at state dropout rate data is necessary. For example, Benay said ‘dropout rate’ implies it’s the school or student’s decision. ‘Pushout’ rate, he said, may be more accurate. Words matter.

“All of a sudden, it sounds like that’s on the system,” he said. “We have to adopt a 0 percent [rate]. Any kid dropping out is not acceptable.”

“It’s different at every school. I’m just starting to gain familiarity. But there’s a need for it and we have a huge truancy problem,” Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson is ambiguous when asked what she would like to see in her program going forward. Time and funding are always an issue, and she says high schools in the county are on board, but only just beginning to explore the many options in responding to truant students individually.

Awareness of who she is and what she does is growing slowly, too. For now, it’s simply a matter of time. Tomlinson is developing the role, and the panel members, school administrators and community are starting to know and trust her.