September 3, 2013

S. Maine schools tackle chronic absenteeism, focus on parents

South Portland collaborates with other districts on tactics for reducing a problem that hurts student performance.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

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One new approach is setting up better record-keeping that automatically alerts administrators when a student has missed five or more days of school. At that level, the school checks in with the family to discuss the absences and offer help or referrals to appropriate social services agencies.

Godin gets personally involved if a student misses 10 or more days, something that happens a lot, she said.

The Maine Department of Education describes a habitually truant student as one who misses seven days in a row, or 10 days in a school year.

What Godin has found is that the elementary school absences are usually tied to parents having mental health or addiction problems. But in middle school, she said, "We see that begin to flip, where parents may have been dealing with those issues, now it is the students that are exhibiting that."

The district is now working with Spurwink and the United Way of Greater Portland to provide support to families who need their services.

"We'll work in a collaborative family meeting to support the family, so it's not just coming from the school. It's a community issue," Godin said.

Tome said the state got more focused on attendance problems as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which required secondary schools to track attendance.

Godin said creating a system to document and track absences was the first step. Another successful tool, she said, was creating a more project-based learning model that engages the students directly.

That has worked at Kaler Elementary School, which also launched a schoolwide family-style breakfast in the classrooms before school starts.

"That has drastically reduced the truancy rate and the tardy rate, and nurse visits were cut in half," Godin said.

This year, the district is part of a new collaborative effort with Westbrook, RSU 14, SAD 61 and Topsham to share best practices and strategies for attendance.

"You can't teach them if they don't come to school," Godin said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

Portland & South Portland attendance, 2005 vs. 2012

A group of Southern Maine school districts are banding together to tackle the problem of elementary school-level truancy, which experts say leads to worse grades and higher drop-out rates in later grades. This chart shows the attendance rates for schools in Portland and South Portland.

SOURCE: State of Maine Department of Education | INTERACTIVE: T.E.D. Andrick
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