Truancy — skipping school — is a perennial problem, especially toward the end of the school year. Poor attendance sets kids back academically and can mask dysfunction at home, like abuse and addiction.
Few Vermont communities have addressed the issue as thoroughly as Lamoille County.
Around lunchtime on a sunny warm day in Morrisville, Melissa Gardner, the truancy social worker for the Lamoille County Restorative Center, strolls up to the front porch of a house that could use a coat of paint.
“Hi guys,” she yells to two people waiting for her, and they both smile.
But inside the house, Stacie Simmons sometimes fights with her 12-year-old daughter, Raquel, about going to school.
“Usually I would wake up early but now I’m too lazy to wake up,” Raquel admits.
“But now it’s changed. You are getting up,” Gardner points out.
Gardner is helping propel that change by visiting the family frequently and working with Raquel’s school to find the social supports she needs. The seventh grader was failing some subjects, but now she’s getting extra help. She’s also figuring out how to cope with kids who taunt her for being a bit overweight and for having mixed race parents.
“I learned how to deal with that,” Raquel says.
“And still learning, right?” Gardner asks. “ I mean you’ve got a big strong team of people around you and you have a counselor at school that you talk to, right?”
“I’m not really doing that much — it’s all her,” Gardner says.
“What are the goals that you’ve set with Melissa?” I ask Raquel.
“To finish the rest of the month with only one day missed,” she answers.
If she reaches that goal, she gets a free pizza for her and her new school friends. That’s a lot better than a day in court. State law mandates school attendance until the age of 16. If a school reports a child missing more than 15 or 20 days, and parents don’t accept help, they could end up in big trouble.
Becky Penberthy directs several programs at the Lamoille County Restorative Center, and she sees a link between truancy, delinquency and poor parenting. Which is why the Department For Children and Families sometimes steps in to the most egregious truancy cases.
“You could lose that child. And in fact, this week that happened in Lamoille County. It’s waiting right now, they could in fact be put in DCF custody or they could remain with their family,” Penberthy says.
In some ways, truancy social workers like Melissa Gardner are an early warning system, detecting the need for social services before harried parents seek help. Her task, she says, is not just to get a kid to go to school every day but to get the whole family the support they need to make that happen.
“My job is to prevent the case from going to court. I want the kid to go to school. Boom. That’s my whole job,” Gardner says. She puts a lot of miles on her station wagon going from house to house and school to school.
Another all-important cog in the wheel of truancy prevention is the teacher. As the center’s Becky Penberthy points out, some parents are not neglectful — in fact, they may not want to part with their youngest kids and may not realize that keeping them home breaks state law.
“You know, it’s hard to drop your tiny little person off at a school and know that they’re going to be with 20 other kids and feel like they’re going to be cared for, so I think teachers at every turn have to impress upon parents that they are caring for them. Because they truly are. Parents just worry that they’re not,” Penberthy says.
Vermont does not track truancy rates statewide. One national survey finds about 2 percent of students between 12 and 17 said they skipped four or more days of school. But in Lamoille County, about 6 percent of the student population is reported truant at some point in the school year.
Lamoille is also unusual in the way it tackles the problem: with a social service agency, rather than from inside a school system. Urban districts, like Burlington, deploy their own truant officers, but teachers in smaller rural schools say they really are not sure what to do when a kid goes AWOL. Heather Hobart, director of the Lamoille Restorative center, has this advice for other communities trying to improve school attendance:
“I think of a truancy officer as somebody who is an enforcer, and not necessarily responsible for building rapport and creating a bridge from home to school. And the way this program works is very much about creating that bridge,” Hobart says.
And the bridge seems to be working. In Lamoille County, Melissa Gardner has 315 active truancy cases in three school districts. Only five, so far, have landed in court. And drop-out rates are improving.
“I want to graduate from high school,” Raquel Simmons says.
“And that’s what I want for her, too,” says her mother Stacie. “Because I never did.”