A broader look at why young children are missing school

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

 The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s be@school program has now made it into the scientific literature of social workers.

In the July issue of Children & Schools, a peer-reviewed journal of the National Association of Social Work, an eight-page article described the issues caseworkers deal with in trying to turn truant students into high-attendance students.

“It’s a broader look at why little kids are not going to school,” said Tim Zuel, manager of the be@school program. “It’s more of an evaluation, a ‘policy-to-practice’ paper.”

Zuel, who co-authored the article with Erin P. Sugrue and Traci LaLiberte, noted in the piece that there has been significant research of truancy and school absenteeism. What is missing are studies that evaluated the programs trying to reduce the absenteeism and identifying programs that show even marginal success. This study focused on young children in grades K-5.

If a child in a school anywhere in Hennepin County has six unexcused absences, the parents are invited to a parent group meeting where a social worker or a representative of the County Attorney’s Office explains to the parents the law on attendance policies and services available.

If the child has three more unexcused absences, the family is referred to one of nine community-based agencies and they send a caseworker to work with the family. Fifteen of those caseworkers, and eight of their supervisors, were interviewed for the article.

The caseworkers identified several factors that make it hard for children to attend school every day:
•    Homelessness
•    Lack of consistent and feasible transportation
•    Parental chemical and alcohol abuse
•    Large family size, making it hard to keep all the children on schedule
•    Mental health issues involving the child or the parents
•    Parents working night shifts so they are working or sleeping when children need to get ready for school
•    Not understanding, especially immigrants, school rules and compulsory education.

The overarching problem, which the caseworkers cannot fix, is poverty, according to the article. Every single person interviewed mentioned an economic problem causing the absenteeism.

The article noted that of the nine community-based agencies used by the county, one each exclusively served Latinos, Hmong, Somali and Native Americans.

“Those culturally-specific agencies showed great promise,” Zuel said.

Absenteeism in the elementary grades (PDF)