As it tries to regain full accreditation, the Hickman Mills Schools District in southeast Kansas City is counting on its new superintendent, Dennis Carpenter, to get the job done.
And one of Carpenter’s early priorities is to get the district’s truancy rates under control.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has set a standard of 90 percent of students being in school 90 percent of the time. Hickman Mills students were far below that level last school year, with a rate of 79 percent of students in school 90 percent of the time.
To close the divide, the district has implemented a new truancy protocol aimed primarily at secondary students.
“I think the protocol is a good one because it offers support for the family,” Carpenter said.
The new protocol outlines the consequences for students and parents as truancy days mount. Carpenter says it’s much tougher and much clearer to parents what happens when students miss class.
The key part of the new plan, Carpenter said, is that it opens lines of communication between schools and parents. After the first absence they get a call from the attendance clerk.
”And that’s not a robo-call. That’s a telephone call,” Carpenter said. “Let’s say there’s something that alerts our attendance clerk that this family needs some assistance. Our family resource specialist can immediately get working with that family.”
After three absences, a district family resource specialist will call home “with a plan for assessing family needs and improving student attendance.” Carpenter said involving resource specialists will help parents take more responsibility for their children’s absences.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all in terms of how you address it,” he said. “But if we have a family resource specialist taking a look at it for us and having a conversation with every child and every family, then we can plug them into the right resources or the right strategies.”
He said improved communication will also help when there are legitimate absences. For instance, if a student misses five days because of the death of a relative, Carpenter said, school officials can be flexible.
“We won’t send that child to truancy court, because we did constant communication with that family,” he said. “So there’s a common-sense element associated with it, too.”
The protocol is being applied primarily to students in grades six through 12. That’s roughly half of the district’s approximately 6,300 students. But, Carpenter says, it will be applied to elementary school students in extreme cases.
Starting this year, Hickman Mills also is participating in Kansas City’s truancy court.
Beginning with a student’s fifth absence, parents will be warned that they could face a citation from the Kansas City Police Department for their children’s truancy. After a seventh absence, parents will be required to meet with a judge in truancy court.
Carpenter said the Kansas City and Raytown school districts both used truancy court last year, and it helped improve attendance. Parents could face a $500 fine if their children are frequently out of class. But, Carpenter said, it’s his hope they won’t be fined.
“What drew me to the process was that Kansas City Public Schools and Raytown both used the process last year. And they both cited improved attendance,” he said. “But in no instance did a parent receive a fine from the court.”
Carpenter, whose previous job was as deputy superintendent of the Newton County School System in Georgia, said that the new truancy protocol won’t solve all of the Hickman Mills district’s problems.
His office has identified seven other administrative priorities to focus on, including safety, improving faculty attendance and reaching full accreditation again.
Still, he believes attendance is a good place to start.
“Improvement is not easy work. We have a mantra here in the district and that’s ‘Hard work pays off.’ It’s going to be hard work,” he said.