AUGUSTA — Children across the city celebrated this week when they walked out of school for the last time till fall.

Administrators are celebrating the fact that efforts aimed at keeping them in school have shown progress — a nearly 36 percent improvement in attendance across the district.

“It wouldn’t have surprised me to see a 10 or 20 percent improvement,” said Tina Meserve, curriculum coordinator for Augusta schools. “It surprised me to see a 30 (plus) percent improvement.”

The renewed effort to curtail truancy was aided by creating a position specifically to work with parents and students that, when all else fails, forces parents of truant students into court.

Chad Strout — hired in September 2010 as Cony High School’s first reintegration specialist — has taken the lead on the initiative. Strout monitors student absences and works with students and families to encourage attendance when students reach the state-mandated limit for unexcused absences.

The Maine Department of Education describes a habitually truant student as an individual who reaches the equivalent of 10 full days, or seven consecutive days, of unexcused absences during a school year.

Strout also works with students returning from suspension. His position was created with a one-year grant, but the school board has since funded the position for another year.

In Strout’s first year, the number of students with 20 or more unexcused absences at Cony dropped from 481 to 313. The effort, which includes careful attendance tracking and contacting parents of truant elementary school students, has led to a 35.6 reduction in the number of students districtwide who racked up 20 or more unexcused absences this year.

“The effort districtwide has made the difference,” said Donna Madore, special-education director for Augusta schools.

Strout meets with habitually truant students in grades 7-12, and, whenever possible, their parents, to develop a plan aimed encouraging the students to attend.

Strout explores why the students are missing school and explains the resources the school has to help students and families.

Many times, families had no idea help was available, Strout said.

“Almost every meeting, they’ve been supportive and appreciative,” he said. “The goal is we don’t have another meeting.”

A second meeting is held when students reach another 10 days, or seven consecutive days.

If absences continue after that, the matter is turned over to Augusta police, who issue parents a civil summons to appear in court.

Augusta police Sgt. Christopher Massey said only four parents were issued a summons this year. “The burden is really placed on the school and not our agency,” Massey said. “They’ve been doing an excellent job.”

But Cony High School Assistant Principal Kim Silsby said the cooperation of police and the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office is important.

“It brings teeth to the process,” Silsby said. “It provides consequences.”

The hope, Madore stressed, is that parents will never see the inside of a courtroom.

“We want these students in school,” she said. “We want them to be successful. We’re not gunning for the parents.”

There were 104 students at Cony High School — 15 at the middle school — who exceeded 10 unexcused absences this year. Strout said he conducted 122 truancy meetings.

But the effort to reach the students begins long before they reach the 10-day threshold.

Guidance councilors, teachers and social workers routinely contact truant students throughout the district. “They’re relentless in knowing where kids are and talking to parents,” Meserve said.

Strout said he personally made more than 730 calls to the parents of truant high school and middle school students this year. He visited 149 parents and 560 students.

“I get phone calls from parents saying they can’t get their children to go to school,” Strout said. “I give them some advice and sometimes I go over and talk to (the student), and they get in my car and come to school.”

Cony monitors both excused and unexcused absences. This year, officials started contacting families with 15 excused absences to see if there was a way to reduce the number of absences and to confirm they were for state-approved reasons.

The state sets guidelines for excused absences. Those reasons include: illness; family emergencies; religious holidays; planned family vacations; and meetings with professionals, such as doctors.

“We’re concerned about both (excused and unexcused absences) because, when you’re not in school, you’re not getting an education,” Cony High School Assistant Principal Stewart Brittner said. “We’re proud of the effort that is made with each student.”

Cony High School Principal Jim Anastasio said many parents believe they can keep their children home whenever they want.

“We have had disagreements with parents about that,” Anastasio said. “They really have to be around those state-approved reasons.”

Shelley Reed, education specialist for the Maine Department of Education, said there are myriad reasons children do not attend school: Sometimes the students are being bullied, she said. Students sometimes are overwhelmed by what is being asked of them. Other times, there are family issues or personal problems.

There are typically around 2,000 students across the state each year who are habitually truant, Reed said.

“Some students have said in the past, ‘It just hurts me to go to school’,” Reed said. “Just about as many truants as there are in the state, there are as many reasons. That’s why one solution won’t take care of them all.”

Reed said a bill currently before the legislature, L.D.1503, was written to promote attendance and increase achievement. She hopes the bill will be passed later this year.

“I love the idea that Augusta is focusing on re-engaging youth,” Reed said. “Across the state, we’re seeing districts come up with really creative solutions.”

The best way to encourage attendance, Reed said, is to make school a safe, enjoyable place to be for all students.

“If everyone’s got to be there, we ought to make it a good experience,” she said.

Craig Crosby–621-5642

[email protected]almaine.com