VALDOSTA — Valdosta City Schools students missed more than 80,000 days of classes last year.
For the more than 8,000 students who attend Valdosta City Schools, that’s an average of nine to 10 days missed per student during the 180-day school year.
“In order for kids to learn, they need to be in school,” said Scarlet Brown, assistant superintendent at Valdosta City Schools. “When kids have gaps in their attendance, that adds up. Over time, that creates difficulties in student learning because they may have missed critical lessons.”
Attendance issues are on everyone’s radar, Brown said, not just inside the SunLight Project's school systems of Valdosta, Tifton, Thomasville, Dalton and Milledgeville, but nationwide as well.
There are two types of absences: excused and unexcused.
Although each school system is allowed to use its own language when designing an attendance policy, excused absence descriptions are consistent — personal illness, death of an immediate family member, observing a religious holiday or a mandated absence by a government agency.
To excuse the absence, a parent or doctor note is typically required.
Unexcused absences can happen for a number of reasons but it usually lacks a parent note.
"One of the reasons that the number of unexcused absences is so high is that only doctor's notes are accepted as an excused absence for an illness," said Dr. Laine Reichert, Thomasville City Schools superintendent.
The issue doesn’t lie in the number of excused versus unexcused absences because both are happening more. It’s chronic absences that are growing.
Chronic absence, which can be excused or unexcused, is defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year, or 18 days, according to Attendance Works, a nonprofit organization that works to raise attendance awareness.
More than 8 million students nationwide are chronically absent from school, according to Attendance Works.
Georgia Department of Education provides attendance data for each school system based on five or fewer days, six to 15 days and 16 or more days missed, with the latest school year of 2016-17 available.
The statewide percentage for 16 or more days missed is 11.2 percent for the 2016-17 school year. It was 10.1 percent the year before and 9.9 percent for the 2014-15 school year.
For Thomasville City Schools, 12.4 percent of its student body missed 16 or more days in the 2016-17 school year. The school system has seen growth in near chronic attendance with 12.3 percent in 2015 and 11.1 percent in 2014.
Reichert said there is an attendance protocol committee made up of school district staff, as well as members from the local judicial system, state Division of Family and Children Services, and law enforcement.
There are several steps to the attendance protocol process, which are designed to stress the importance of school attendance to parents and to provide them assistance in ensuring their children are in school.
“Since I have been here, no parent has been arrested or sent to court for attendance issues,” Reichert said of Thomasville. “It is possible, however, that there have been DFACS referrals due to lack of school attendance."
Parents instead receive warning letters when students reach the five-day absence mark and referrals to the attendance protocol process occur at the 10-day absence mark.
Reichert is in her second year as city schools superintendent, and there haven’t been any changes to the attendance policy since her tenure began.
For Thomas County Schools, which saw 13.5 percent of its student body miss 16 or more days in the 2016-17 school year — the highest in the SunLight region — its policy reads similar to Thomasville City Schools. This was a jump from 11.3 percent in the 2015-16 and 2014-15 school years.
Parents will receive a notification at their student’s fifth unexcused absence.
After two attempts to reach the parent or guardian, the school system notifies them of “possible consequences and penalties for failing to comply with compulsory attendance.”
"The only families that go to court for truancy are the parents against whom the school district files charges,” said Dr. Lisa Williams, Thomas County superintendent.
In 2017-18, only two parents were charged, and they were a husband and wife with three children in county schools, Williams said. In 2016-17, the district charged one parent.
Prior to involving the legal system, the district takes families to the Community-Based Risk Reduction Team, a committee of representatives from local agencies, including law enforcement, mental health, both public school systems, the Department of Juvenile Justice, DFACS and the district attorney's office.
To avoid pressing charges, Williams said the school system tries to take as many families as they can to the committee — about nine to 12 a year.
“Usually, the families we take to CBRRT have multiple children who are not attending school regularly,” Williams said. “Many times, DFACS is already involved with the families and school attendance expectations are explicit in the plan that DFACS sets for the family.”
If the final intervention of going to CBRRT is not effective and the children are still not attending school, the matter can be referred to the legal system.
If children are young and the fault for poor attendance rests on the parent, the parent is charged and arrested. If the child is older and not cooperative, a juvenile complaint may be filed on the child.
Williams said truancy is based only on unexcused absences. Schools monitor attendance and provide interventions and support at the school level.
When a student accumulates 10 unexcused absences, the district office is notified and makes contact with the family to explain what might happen if the student does not attend school.
If the student continues to miss school, the district may escalate the case to CBRRT. Each family is handled on a case-by-case basis.
The number of children in the family, the age of the children, the number of absences and tardies, and any other circumstances facing the family are all considered when determining how to best help the family.
Lowndes County School System more clearly defined consequences within the attendance policy this year with hopes of increasing attendance.
For the 2016-17 school year, 7 percent of Lowndes County students missed 16 or more days. It was 6.3 percent in 2015 and 6 percent in 2014. The lowest percentage in the SunLight region for 2016-17.
That didn’t matter to the school system, it still thought its policy needed updating.
“There have been limited consequences for students or parents for unexcused absences,” said Sandra Wilcher, Lowndes County Schools director of student support services. “We’ve really not had a procedure in place until now.”
The updated policy came to fruition at the beginning of the school year when Lowndes County School System met with the Lowndes County Magistrate Court.
The magistrate court is listed in the policy as a potential consequence to a student having five or more unexcused absences. This is for extreme cases and the last resort, school officials said.
Parents or guardians will be notified at the 10th excused or unexcused absence, and Wilcher said school system social workers will work with them as much as possible to figure out how to fix the truancy issue.
At the 15th absence, Lowndes County Schools will get DFACS involved or enroll the parent or guardian into the Truancy Intervention Program, a class offered by the Lowndes Drug Action Council.
Wilcher said Lowndes sent 268 families to TIP last school year. For some cases, that still didn’t work, so it sent 33 families to magistrate court.
Nine families were arrested.
“There really wasn’t a process in place to hold parents accountable,” said Penny Turner, a social worker with Lowndes County Schools. “The absences were excessive, and the reasons were not valid.”
The new policy was inspired by Tift County Schools’ policy, which also uses the magistrate court system as a consequence to serious absence issues.
In the 2016-17 school year, Tift County Schools saw 10.5 percent of its student body missing 16 or more days of school in a year, down from 2014-15 school year's 10.8 percent.
The Tift absence policy only allows for three excused absences in a nine-week period, and the school system will contact parents or guardians if a student has five or more unexcused absences.
Though sending parents or guardians to magistrate court is a last resort, Tift County Schools will do it if a student receives six or more unexcused absences with no resolution between the parent/guardian and the school system, school officials said.
Valdosta City Schools joined Lowndes County last January in modeling its attendance policy after Tift County Schools.
The school system was down to 8.9 percent in 2014 and 8.6 percent in 2015 of students missing 16 or more days, until it shot up to 12.9 the next school year.
To combat this, the school system sent more than 200 families to TIP.
Valdosta City Schools took far less families, five seriously chronic absence issues, to magistrate court, said Deanna Folsom, Valdosta City Schools social services coordinator. Only one was arrested.
“The last action we want to take is legal action, but it becomes necessary when parents or children neglect getting to school,” Folsom said. “Now that we’ve taken some to magistrate court, they’re starting to realize this is serious.”
Folsom said school systems needed to strengthen the policy because there were little to no consequences in place. As a result, absences increased.
One issue, she noted, is when Georgia no longer made it a requirement to have good attendance in school for teens to get their driver’s licenses in 2015.
According to the Georgia Compulsory Attendance Law — which is what most attendance policies at Georgia school systems are based on — it states students ages 6-16 are required to attend school.
Folsom said she thinks it should be extended to 18-year-old students.
She said lack of legislative progress is especially problematic for school systems graded on their attendance. The Georgia Department of Education looks at attendance to rate a district’s College and Career Ready Performance Index.
“The Georgia Department of Education grades schools on attendance, so I feel like legislators aren’t on the same page as the DOE,” Folsom said.
Hundreds of miles away in middle Georgia, Baldwin County Schools have been using the court system for a few years to manage truancy issues.
With 11.7 percent of its student body missing 16 or more days of school — down from 12.4 percent in 2014 — Matt Wark, Baldwin County Schools deputy superintendent, said the school system hasn’t had to arrest any families due to attendance issues.
Wark said a parent or guardian is contacted after three unexcused days. At five unexcused absences, a truancy officer gets involved.
Again, court is usually a last resort as a result of a couple of home visits and still no resolution.
Wark said the issue is usually resolved once a truancy officer gets involved.
“Ninety percent of the time when our truancy officer gets involved for unexcused absences they’re really excused,” Wark said. “The parent just hasn’t gotten doctor’s notes or provided the documentation.”
Baldwin County School’s attendance policy is clear in how to handle unexcused absences but it isn’t clear for excused absences, which usually only attract attention in extreme cases.
The Baldwin school system doesn’t typically track excused absences, Wark said.
“We don’t really put a lot of effort into excused absences,” Wark said. “We monitor them to see if it’s truly hurting the child’s academics, but we don’t have anything in our policy to where I would have my truancy officer step in. Now, if we have a child that’s having an excused absence every single Friday, we do pay attention to that.”
Whitfield County Schools and Dalton Public Schools have worked together to craft a common policy on unexcused absences. The details differ slightly between the two school systems but the basic policy is the same.
The percentage of near chronic cases in both school systems are about the same for the 2016-17 school year: Whitfield County Schools at 10.2 percent and Dalton Public Schools at 9.8 percent.
Both school systems saw spikes in poor attendance, with Whitfield County at 8.7 percent for school years 2014-15 and 2015-16 and Dalton jumping from 7.6 percent in 2014-15 and 9.2 percent in 2015-16.
"The Georgia Juvenile Court code defines truancy as 10 unexcused absences in a school year," said Jackie Taylor, lead social worker for Dalton Public Schools. "That's when we can file charges, but we will have gone through several steps of intervention before that. We would never just take someone to juvenile court."
Both school systems send a letter to parents after a student has had five unexcused absences and again after 10 unexcused absences. They will send a letter after seven total absences of any kind.
"The letters basically say, 'We have noticed that your child has been absent. We are concerned,'" Taylor said. "But a lot of times teachers have reached out to parents even before we formally send out letters. I encourage teachers to reach out to parents. It just comes across better if a teacher says, 'We really missed your child.' And it's true."
Taylor said that when a student reaches seven unexcused absences or 10 absences overall, an attendance review team meets at the school.
"The team is the parents, the teacher, often an administrator and either a counselor or a social worker," she said.
In high school and sometimes middle school, the student will be part of the meeting.
Tracie Hogan Simmons, the lead social worker at Whitfield County Schools, said the meetings often uncover larger issues causing the child to miss school.
"It can be health issues, the student or another member of the family has had a severe illness," she said. "Often the family has had to move. A parent may have lost a job. Maybe there is domestic violence going on. But often, the parent comes in and says, 'Oh, my goodness. I didn't realize how these days have added up.'"
The team tries helping the family manage the issue causing absences.
Social workers say the meetings usually stop the problem. But if the problem continues, the family will be referred to an educational improvement team.
"That is overseen by the juvenile court," Simmons said. "We bring in DFCS. We have the health department, community mental health, a lot of different resources. We have a conversation and bring up a plan to improve attendance."
If that doesn't improve attendance, the case will be referred to juvenile court.
Neither Dalton nor Whitfield school system could immediately say how many cases are referred to juvenile court each year, but both said it is no more than "a handful."
Brown, assistant superintendent with Valdosta City Schools, said she understands there needs to be consequences for chronic absences.
She also thinks finding a positive outlook could keep absences from increasing.
“Consequences are one thing, but we wanted to positively raise awareness for good attendance,” Brown said. “We’re trying to do a multi-faceted campaign and revised our protocol. We needed to engage teachers in the process and not just send letters to families who violate the attendance policies.”
At a Sept. 11 meeting, Brown brought a proclamation to raise awareness of attendance to Valdosta Board of Education.
Included was a video project, purchases of banners and making memes stating good attendance is better for students.
Brown brought teachers, administrators, businesses and community members together in September to promote attendance at all 10 Valdosta City Schools.
Other community members joined educators to show students the importance of good attendance.
“Creating good attendance habits early creates better work habits,” Brown said. “We recognize it’s something we have to address as a community.”
In addition to Katelyn Umholtz, SunLight Project team members Patti Dozier, Charles Oliver, Eve Copeland and Will Woolever contributed to this report.
Katelyn Umholtz is a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be contacted at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256.