Julio, a bright eyed, energetic, six-year old first-grader in a Bellevue elementary school is chronically tardy and frequently absent from school. When the school’s attendance secretary called his home one morning, Julio answered the phone. “She’s sleeping” said Julio when the secretary asked for Mom. “She worked all night cleaning at the hospital.” His mom does custodial work on the “graveyard” shift.
Studies show unequivocally that children who fall behind in learning in early grades are rarely able to catch up and experience academic success. Educators often say, “By third grade, you must learn to read and from then on, you must read to learn.” Julio, through no fault of his own, is losing ground every day he’s tardy or misses school altogether. He is just six years old.
Video games are the passion of Jesse (a middle-schooler). He’s connected online with a group of middle school peers who compete head-to-head and, sometimes as groups, in combat-style games. Often, the competition heats up in the late evening and Jesse stays engaged into the wee hours of the morning. Since his parents leave by 6:30 a.m. for work, they count on Jesse to get himself to school. Even when he attends, Jesse misses the first two or three periods of the school day.
Successful transitions from 5th to 6th grade and from 8th to 9th are critical to a student’s continued progress toward high school graduation. Jesse got distracted by the video games as he began the first year of middle school. Just when his parents work schedule required him to assume more personal responsibility for attending school, he slipped through the transition gap and cannot realize that his future is at stake. A high school diploma is typically the minimum credential for long-term employment and life success. In Bellevue, the five-year high school graduation rate for the class of 2016 was 94.5%. This means that more than 80 students did not attain this crucial credential within five years of starting ninth grade. The students who did not complete high school are not randomly distributed throughout the population. They are mostly male (71%), often Black or Hispanic (31%), and likely face an additional challenge such as low family income (39%), limited English proficiency (20%), a special education need (32%), and/or being homeless (6%).
Community Support Required
Julio and Jesse represent a segment of the local student population in dire need of community support. When students need an extra dose of structure or support to get attendance habits back on track, they connect with the Community Truancy Board (CTB) at the Bellevue School District. The CTB combines the power of the court, the resources of the school district, community members and the involvement of the family to respond effectively to a student’s truancy. CTB engagement is often an effective way to: start the conversation with a family about student attendance, reestablish a connection between school staff and a student, and identify what changes need to occur to help the student get back on track.
Volunteers Staff the CTB
The Board meets weekly and is staffed with community volunteers, district employees, and city staff. Typically, a community volunteer serves just one day per month. At the CTB meetings, conversations with students and their families surface many potential solutions to improve attendance. CTB serves over 50 chronically absent students per year – meeting with most multiple times.
The CTB builds a culture of service among Board members so that, when children have an unmet need impacting their attendance, the community will find a way to address it. Board members have secured outside services for students and families through numerous organizations such as Jubilee REACH, Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA. The Kid REACH tutoring program at BelPres is also a factor in this culture of community support.
Community volunteers are trained before they hear cases at CTB. They learn skills of “mindful inquiry” and reflective listening. Board members are non-judgmental, clear-spoken and interested in the safety and well-being of students and their families. They attend hearings on a regular basis, read background material on the cases, ask open-ended questions of students, parents/guardians and participate in creating recommendations for a plan to help students achieve regular school attendance.
Student and Parent Testimonies
While the work of the CTB is a strategy for meeting the requirements of Washington State law mandating school attendance, the great benefits are those realized by the students who follow the Board’s recommendations and attend school. In the close of the past school year, the mother of a former chronically truant student expressed her gratitude to the CTB: “You helped very much in terms of motivation and support. Without you, we wouldn’t have known what to do… At the truancy board meetings, I learned the meaning of community: it means our family and everyone coming together to help each other out. I am very grateful because, without them, my daughter would not have made a turn around and been recognized for it. She still has a ways to go but she graduated high school and is now taking classes at Bellevue College.”
The daughter rediscovered her potential and found the CTB to be a supportive community presence that held her accountable. She said, “The Truancy Board was helpful because they kept me accountable to the plan. It was good to come to the meetings every month. Their encouragement helped me learn from my mistakes and I didn’t give up.” Many students and families need the surrounding community to help them meet the challenges of daily life. Children who experience academic success and graduate from high school with a post-secondary plan are better equipped for adult life, responsible citizenship and making a contribution to our community.
Multiple members of BelPres have served on the Community Truancy Board and attest to its value and results. In the words of Dave Cole, “The experience of being a part of the Truancy Board has been one of the most joyful experiences of my life. Witnessing a vulnerable, young, male student – so deeply troubled from previous sexual abuse – successfully bond with a teacher who showed him unconditional love was truly amazing. Over time, the boy’s life was transformed. I heard that teacher say, with tears rolling down her cheeks, ‘I love that child.’ The work of the CTB is remarkable.”
Approaching the new school year, the CTB has vacancies to be filled. Please contact Community Outreach Director, Tom Brewer for further information about serving on the CTB.