(09/30/2014)
By Bob Weaver

Nearly one in three public school students in West Virginia missed at least five days of class last year without an excuse, according to the West Virginia Department of Education, a pattern that remains steady in WV over the three school years surveyed.

Those unexcused absences means those students are truant, which could mean fines, court hearings or even jail time for parents.

If jail time for parents would be the punishment, West Virginia would have to build a new jail for the offenders.

Calhoun Superintendent of Schools Tim Woodward did not respond to a public information request regarding truancy in local schools, but the WV Department of Education's stats for three years indicates significant improvement locally.

The Calhoun truancy rate has lowered from 40.6% in 2009-10 to 24.3% in 2013-14, according to state officials, the school system likely making major efforts to improve attendance.

Calhoun schools have issued juvenile petitions related to truancy, according to magistrate court records, and in some cases a parent or guardian have been arrested, fined and occasionally jailed.

Statistics regarding juvenile petitions and interventions have not been made public.

Calhoun schools did not respond to a public information request regarding the number of expulsions in school year 2013-14 or the number of students whose drug tests were positive under the systems policy of testing students who are engaged in extra-circular activities.

After years of failed efforts and among the poorest academic outcomes in the nation, West Virginia school systems are now required to have 180 days of instruction.

Regional counties truancy rate for the 2013-14 school years:

Gilmer - 53.2% (whose rate dramatically worsened)

Braxton - 40.7% (whose rate has been consistently high)

Wirt - 38.3% (whose rate has worsened)

Roane - 36.3% (whose rate slightly improved)

Clay - 34.2% (whose rate has improved from 48%)

Ritchie - 30.6% (whose rate has been consistent)

McDowell and Wyoming counties topped the truancy list with 58 and 57 percent of their students marked as truant.

In truancy cases involving a student under the age of 12, the responsibility falls on the parents.

A letter is sent home for the first offense and usually means a fine for each day the student is absent. A second offense could mean jail time.

For students over the age of 12, truancy isn't a jailable offense for parents or students, but it could mean probation for repeat offenders.

Calhoun High School has significantly improved graduation rates.

McDowell County, where top education leaders have implemented an ongoing reform project in the low-achieving district, truancy cases are a clear byproduct of high poverty and high drug abuse, said Superintendent Nelson Spencer.

Spencer said his district has hired "graduation coaches" to spend extra time with at-risk students in the county's high schools. He said that resources provided by Reconnecting McDowell the reform project spearheaded by the American Federation of Teachers have contributed to engaging students and making them want to come to school more than before.

In Jefferson County, only about 7 percent of the county's 9,000 students have been marked truant, the lowest rate in the state.

Sheri Hoff, the county's director of attendance, said "Our numbers were astronomically high nearly a decade ago near 80 percent. We weren't really identifying them. Now, we have a concerted effort. A bus driver, a cafeteria manager, they all make calls to let us know," Hoff said. "We have pushed very hard for a number of years to get [students] here and to get interventions in place."


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