How can students be taught if they aren’t in class? The Illinois State Board of Education in early November released data about the percentage of chronically truant students at Proviso Township High School District 209 through the Illinois School Report Card.

The data showed a significant rise across the district in “chronic truancy” to 46.5 percent, with major jumps at Proviso East High School and Proviso Math and Science Academy.

The school board heard a proposal to help a small number of freshman and sophomore students catch up and blend back into high school, but board member Theresa Kelly complained that a similar program was tried before and found to be a failure in D209.

According to the new Illinois Report Card, 79 percent or 1,520 Proviso East students had nine or more unexcused absences in the 2012-13 school year, up from 43.5 percent the previous year. At PMSA the truancy rate jumped from 4 percent to 29 percent, with a total of 237 students tallying nine or more unexcused absences. Proviso West High School’s rate, meanwhile, fell by 3 percent to 25 percent. The state average is 10 percent.

This data was previously reported to the state board of education but was aggregated on the ISBE website and not broken out by individual school.

To deal with truancy at Proviso East and West high schools, the board of education heard a proposal at the Nov. 12 board meeting to set up an Alternative Learning Opportunities Program (ALOP) with the help of the West 40 Intermediate Service Center.

Students who are chronically truant are 35 percent more likely to fail a class if they have 10 or more unexcused absences, compared to a rate of 5 percent with five or fewer absences, the presentation materials said.

Daniel Johnson, administrator for special projects, presented the proposal which calls for two classes at Proviso East and West high schools of 25 students each. West 40 currently runs such programs at Oak Park and River Forest, Morton and Ridgewood high school districts, said West 40 Executive Director Kay Poyner Brown.

The program would be funded by the state board of ed through West 40, according to the proposal. An ALOP program administered by West 40 is eligible for a payment from the state of $6,119 per student, whereas the district’s truancy reimbursement is typically less than $450 per student, the proposal indicated. West 40 would receive 25 percent of the state funds, or $76,487 for administering and running the program.

The program would enroll only freshmen and sophomores and identify students who were most at risk of being chronically truant, due to transportation issues or other problems.

“Our goal is to get to the bottom of the issues that make up a lack of attendance and get those students counseled and connected with adults who can help them,” said Poyner Brown.

The program would develop a special classroom, a “school within a school” for at-risk students, she said. Using the APEX program, already used by D209 for summer school and credit recovery, the program would let students make up missed work on the computer. Two hours of class would consist of counseling to address social, emotional and behavioral needs with the goal of getting the student back on track to graduate and re-entering the general student population. The project would be phased in and increased to 100 students over three years.

The West 40 truancy procedure consists of a five-stage process that begins by notifying parents by letter that their child has been absent. At stage three, a hearing is held with parents and student to hammer out an agreement to get the student to class regularly. At stage five a complaint is filed against parents in Cook County Circuit Court.

“We obviously don’t want them to get to stage five,” said Poyner Brown.

Board member Theresa Kelly complained that West 40 had tried a truancy program at Proviso before and then pulled out.

The federal grant Tapestry program, also using the APEX computer program, was briefly instituted in 2011 to work individually with students who were chronically truant and needed to make up credits.

Asked why West 40 quit the program at Proviso, Poyner Brown blamed miscommunication.

“There was a mismatch with the district’s readiness and the level of intensity of the program,” Poyner Brown said. “There was a lack of communication. Our goal is to make you successful.”

But Kelly said the district already had a truancy program, social workers, counselors and administrators. “We are already paying these people to do that job,” she said, noting that the federal Tapestry grant program didn’t work in Proviso and that the district should stop treating students as “guinea pigs.”

“How is West 40 going to make our students come to school? Tell me that.”

In an interview after the meeting, Kelly said the 25 students served would be too small a group to make a difference in truancy rates.

“Why can’t we just do it in-house?” Kelly asked, pointing out that the district had formerly hired truant officers. “The truancy officers were out in the street knocking on doors and talking to parents,” she added.

“We need to go back with truancy officers bringing our students back to school.”

Suburban Cook County is the only region in the entire state that receives no funding for truancy, Poyner Brown said.

“Our principals are going to have to work with the truancy in their schools. We should have had a report from each principal,” Kelly said, adding it was important to look at long-term data and find out if the numbers are an anomaly.

Edward Moyer, executive director for assessment and planning, was absent from the Nov. 12 at the board meeting. He did not answer emails asking for clarification about the truancy data before press time.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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