Attendance is essential to any student’s education. They can’t learn if they’re not present for instruction and if they don’t learn their chances of academic success plummet. This year, though, chronic absenteeism could cost more than just those who miss and the price could be more than just individual educations.
Changes to the standards of accreditation for Virginia schools took effect this school year. Prior to this year, schools were evaluated on how well they performed on Standards of Learning tests (SOLs). Now, chronic absenteeism and achievement gaps will also be taken into consideration during evaluations.
“This is the first year attendance counts as part of the accreditation,” said Bland County High School Principal Jill Hopkins. “We’re so small, everybody has to comply. We don’t have a lot of room for error.”
At every school board meeting for the last several months, Hopkins has reported that the high school is battling chronic absenteeism. In some cases, students have missed as many as 30 days this school year. During the March 12 meeting, she told board members that the school was still working to reign in habitual absences.
Parents have been contacted, letters sent home and, in some cases, paperwork has been filed with the court system.
“We send out letters every week, religiously,” she told the board. “And we’ve been meeting with social services and Todd Scott with the court system.”
According to data from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, the elementary and high schools combined have had 10 truancy intake complaints so far this school year. Last year, they had zero.
In comparison, Wythe County schools have had 8 truancy intake complaints and Tazewell County has had 40. With only 719 students, Bland County student membership is dwarfed by that of its neighbors. Tazewell County, for example has more than seven times as many students, and only four times as many complaints.
Virginia law requires children between the ages of 5 and 18 to attend school. Parents or guardians of those who do not comply could be charged with a class three misdemeanor.
Half of the complaints filed this year in Bland County were petitioned and will go through the court system. The other half was diverted away from the court system, meaning that the complaints were either resolved, unfounded or handled with a diversion plan. That number doesn’t include cases resolved outside the legal system. Hopkins reported during the meeting that the high school alone had already had a total of 17.
“Our goal is really just for students to come to school and we try to work with families first,” Hopkins explained.
To meet the attendance requirements for accreditation, the number of students with chronic absences cannot exceed a 15 percent overall average. Chronic absences are defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year. That includes both excused and unexcused absences. For a 180-day school year that would allow students 18 absences per year before they are considered chronically absent.
To put it into perspective, Hopkins told the board to consider the size of the senior class.
“We’re so small, when you see how many seniors we have, if they miss more than that—which they are—that would mean everybody else would need to be in compliance. We don’t have a lot of room for error.”
Last year, the school averaged 10.9 percent, which was down from nearly 20 percent high during the 2014-15 school year. Requests for this year’s current average have gone unanswered.
Despite the new attendance criteria for accreditation, BCHS is in no immediate danger of losing accreditation, a Virginia Department of Education official said last week.
“No school is denied accreditation under the new system unless they refuse to make a good faith effort to implement a directive action plan,” said Charles Pyle, a VDOE spokesperson.
He explained that a school would have to show no progress for three consecutive years with no effort to correct the issue. Schools could, however, be demoted from a fully accredited institution to a conditionally accredited institution. Bland County Schools received full accreditation status in 2016.
Hopkins and her staff at the high school have been working to help students understand the increased importance of attendance.
“Our teachers work really hard and our students work really hard. We don’t want something like attendance to keep us from being accredited,” she said.
The school has a teacher who dedicates a period during the school day to keeping up with attendance and sending home notices to parents. Letters are sent home at three, five and eight absences. At eight unexcused absences, students are referred to a truancy officer.
Hopkins said she will continue to work with students and parents to try to resolve chronic unexcused absence issues outside of the court system, but those with continued noncompliance will be referred to court services.
She seemed optimistic about improvement, though. Now that the school year is starting to wind down, she told the board that students were starting to realize the gravity of the issue.
“I talked to them at the beginning of the year, but now that it’s getting serious, they’re like ‘whoa, what’s going on.’”
Bland County schools have about two months left in the 2018-19 school year to correct the problem.
Jasmine Dent Franks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.