Franklin County using new tools to battle chronic absences

Secondary Learning Centers are an alternative to out-of-school suspensions

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Va. – Michael was put in foster care because he missed too much school.

His foster parents say he missed a month of school in first grade. They had trouble too until Katie Ingram stepped in.

"We struggled with getting him just into the car so we could take him to school at first. There was one morning where literally it just wasn't happening. Miss Katie actually physically came and drove to our house to help convince Michael to get into the car to come to school," said Brad Dulaney, Michael's foster parent.

That's one of Ingram's jobs as one of nine family liaisons in Franklin County elementary schools.
Dulaney says after a couple months it got much better.

"Miss Katie did a wonderful job of helping make school a place that Michael wanted to be. A place where he felt valued," said Dulaney.

The family liaisons build bridges between families and the school, working on communication and trust so families feel comfortable getting the help they need, like food stamps or heating assistance. Ingram says the cycle of absenteeism starts really young, in kindergarten or first grade.

"If we work with them now and let them learn to love being here and love learning, love the staff here, then it allows them at every age they go up they want to be here more and more because they're building those relationships stronger," said Ingram.

For older students, there's a new Secondary Learning Center.

"Chronic absences have always been a concern. If students are not in school they're not going to achieve," said Dr. Bernice Cobbs, the Benjamin Franklin Middle School campus principal.

She says if a student gets an out-of-school suspension it counts as an absence, so they launched the center as an alternative. Students are supervised to do classwork instead of being sent home, getting credit for being at school.

School coordinator Susan Badger says the smaller class size gives the students more attention and fewer distractions.

"I hope this gives the students a desire to be in school, self-motivation to come to school and learn. We are at the Secondary Learning Center incorporating restorative practices which help students change their behaviors, or maybe cope with their behaviors," said Badger.

More than 90 students have been referred so far this year from grades 6-12. The average student spends 5-10 days here.

"What we're seeing is the students, they are achieving. That's what we want. We don't want to set up a system where students are dropping out because of OSS or other chronic absences," said Cobbs.

It's changing student behaviors across the board for all students like Michael.

"I like learning and spending time with teachers," said Michael.

There's now an elementary learning center set up to help with suspensions, too.

All Franklin County schools are in good standing and do not have problems with chronic absenteeism, but they are trying to be proactive.

They say students with disabilities have higher absenteeism because of suspensions and health issues so they are trying to put in extra supports around them as well.

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