LIMA — The goal is to get students to high school graduation day. But making that happen isn't easy and sometimes barely possible.“Obviously you would like there to be no dropouts, but that is not realistic, even in the best circumstance,” Van Wert schools Superintendent Ken Amstutz said of his district's 8 percent dropout rate.Even with increased efforts to find ways and alternative programs to keep students in school, officials say there is only so much they can do. Lack of financial resources to hire a person to track down and work with students and a lack of parental support are just a few of the obstacles schools face. During his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama urged states to require students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18. Ohio is already among the 19 states to do so. Yet students are still dropping out.At least 23,0000 Ohio teens dropped out last school year, according to the Associated Press. Most of those were out illegally and could face penalties. Once referred to juvenile court, a judge can place students on probation, remove them from their homes or suspend their driver's licenses. Locally, a lot of intervention comes first. There is still the problem of sometimes finding students and getting parents involved. “There is a percentage of those where it is cyclical, and we are trying to break that cycle,” said Cathy Follett, who runs the Allen County Juvenile Court Diversion Services Department. “There are a handful of parents who don't feel education is important and passing that onto their own children, which is really sad.”Schools today facing financial constraints can't afford to hire truancy officers like in years past, said Lima schools Superintendent Karel Oxley. The work, she said, often falls on principals or other staff already loaded with work. Multiple reasons they leaveSchools face all kinds of reasons students drop out of school. Current economic times is one, Oxley said. “Sometimes they are forced because of fiscal necessities to drop out and get jobs,” she said. “There are many reasons that impact an urban child to drop out of school.”The district has seen a decline in dropouts over the past few years. In the 2008-09 school year, 136 dropped out. The next year's number was 94, and it dropped to 58 last school year. Drugs and alcohol can at times come into play, Amstutz said, as does family history. “Mom and dad never had an education, and they have gotten by in life, so there is no purpose to that,” he said. School is just a struggle for some, Amstutz said, making them never fit in. Education, he said, hasn't always done a good job at making school fit for all students. Some students know they don't have enough credits to graduate, so they drop out, Allen East schools Superintendent Michael Richards said. Age is sometimes a factor. “Maybe they are a freshman at 17,” he said, saying the district sometimes signs off on a student leaving school to go to a GED program. “Maybe they know they are not going to graduate and plan to drop out at 18. We try to make the best out of those worlds and push those kids toward a GED.”Patterns can start to develop at early ages that continue into high school, Oxley said. It's why officials try to reach pupils and parents early. Follett hears all kinds of excuses for why students aren't going to school, many of those coming from parents who say they don't have transportation or just can't get their children to go. Once working with families, Follett finds a gamut of issues, including drugs and alcohol, behavior and traumatic experiences. Court program knocks on doorsJuvenile court gets referrals from every school in Allen County and regarding elementary pupils through high school students, Follett said. After three to five days of unexcused absences, a district can ask the court to send a letter to parents citing the Ohio Revised Code that parents must send their child to school. “That takes a lot of kids out of the system right there,” Follett said. “They pay attention to that juvenile court logo.”If the letter does not work and absences are up to five to seven, a one-time meeting is called, where Follett once again talks about the law. It that doesn't work or a parent doesn't show up, the Project Intercept program is put in place. It includes the court, a school official and Children Services. It is another attempt to talk to parents about why the child is missing school. The next step is a truancy complaint signed against the child if he or she is in fifth grade or above. It is an unofficial charge with the juvenile court, leading to the child being assigned an intervention worker. A behavioral contract is drawn up and could include a house arrest or curfew and counseling. A child also must attend school. The program could last three to five months and includes a lot of collaborative efforts with area agencies. “The program is designed to keep kids out of the court system, to keep them from having a record,” Follett said, noting the different entities work together to figure out the problems and put together a plan of action. “This used to be a juvenile court problem, but now it is a community problem.”A parent of a kindergartner through eighth-grader could at some point face charges from the county prosecutor. It is assumed that high school students should be able to get themselves to school, Follett said. The court program is finding success. In 2011, it received 918 referrals and tried to get a parent in for the initial meeting. Only 65 ended up having a truancy complaint filed against them. Forty-seven of those qualified and went through the diversion program. The remainder of the cases were sent to court.Making students want to staySchools try to make instruction engaging, so students want to stay in school, Oxley said. One way to do that is through career technical programs. “Students are out working in jobs half the day,” she said. “You make learning even more meaningful when they can apply it to a particular work site.”Van Wert schools opened its LifeLinks Community School in 2010 for middle and high school students at risk of not graduating. It has a vocational, service learning and project-based focus. It is helping the dropout rate, Amstutz said.“There are some kids who just are not suited for regular education and sitting there with their rear ends in the seat six hours a day,” he said. “It is just not right for some kids. Yet, we are still going to have those kids that you are not going to solve and salvage.”Alterative programs like online schooling is another option that students have not always had, Richards said. He believes school dropout is not as big of a problem as it once was, when students easily moved on. The economy has made that tougher.“There is definitely a greater need for training today than years ago,” he said. “Before, people could leave school and go out and get a job. Now, it is very hard to. We have had kids go out and find that things are a little rough and come back.” An additional worry for schools is the talk in Columbus of districts' graduation rates being based only on four years. That would mean a student needing an extra year to graduate would negatively impact a district's graduation rate. Graduation rates are factored into districts' state report cards.“We have programs that include a fifth year,” Oxley said. “That is unfair for districts.”You can comment on this story at www.limaohio.com.
Truancy, dropouts create tough battles for area schools, courts