Imagine teaching a child who has missed 92 days of school.
That’s 18 weeks—four and a half months—of reading, writing and math.
The Janesville Police Department and Jackson Elementary School are successfully reducing absenteeism through a pilot program called PACT: Preventing Absenteeism in Children and Teens.
Police officer Denise Stutika told the Janesville School Board on Tuesday that she didn’t realize how much of an issue absenteeism was until she started working in the schools.
She discovered that what the adults had been doing wasn’t working.
“I found that it didn’t matter how many truancy citations were written, it never really impacted or changed things,” Stutika said. “We were constantly being reactive and not solving the problem.”
The key to changing behavior involved creating relationships with parents that went beyond school walls.
Jackson Principal Kristen Moisson told the board that they targeted 34 students with “significant attendance concerns”—those who had missed 18 to 92 days of school.
Stutika started doing home visits with families—not to reprimand them, just to get to know them. Last summer, Moisson and school social worker Meghan Everhart joined her.
“We had students missing school, we had families who needed some extra support, but we didn’t know about it because the relationship wasn’t there,” Moisson said.
When they visited homes, they asked how they could help. Did the family need an alarm clock? Would a call in the morning help? Was there a transportation problem?
Everhart met with each of the 34 students every day, just to let them know how much the school cared about them and wanted to have them there. She’s now checking in with more than 70 students.
Parents are grateful for the extra support, and attendance has improved significantly. Parents also seem more willing to come to school events, such as parent-teacher conferences and Jackson’s annual harvest supper.
Superintendent Steve Pophal said the program could have an incredible affect on kids’ lives.
“Instead of trying to solve the problem through accountability, they’ve solved the problem through support and understanding,” Pophal said. “I think the results speak for themselves. When we help remove barriers for our families, we can’t underestimate the trajectory change for these boys and girls.”
The district plans to expand the absenteeism pilot program to other elementary schools. School resource officers will also be part of those programs.
Pophal credited the school resource officers, Police Chief Dave Moore and school security specialist and former Sgt. Brian Donohoue for their contributions.
He also took the opportunity to give Moore and the police department the school district’s Friend of Education Award. Pophal praised such police innovations as Project Direct Connect, which allows schools to bypass the dispatch system in emergencies, as well as drug identification workshops, Stay Safe workshops, the Shop with a Cop program, the P3 tips program and the work of resource officers.
Moore said he realized many years ago that institutions such as police departments and schools do better if they get out of their “silos” and work together.