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W.Va. education officials withholding truancy data

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State lawmakers want to know what schools and counties have the highest truancy rates in West Virginia.

State Department of Education administrators brought a report with that information to a legislative subcommittee meeting Tuesday, but department officials declined to release the data to legislators. They also wouldn't share the report with the media.

Assistant Superintendent Amelia Courts said the "draft" report included attendance data for 330,000 students -- 50,000 more than the total number of students in K-12 schools in West Virginia.

Students who rack up multiple absences and move from school to school were counted twice or more in the report.

"Many students who are absent are also very transient," Courts said. "They move from school to school, from county to county."

Lawmakers had asked for the data at a previous education subcommittee meeting. Tuesday's agenda reflected their expectation that they would receive county-by-county school truancy rates.

"In my personal opinion, I don't understand the difficulty you're having getting the data at the school level," said Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, who seemed unaware that the Department of Education already had prepared a draft report.

Department administrators said they planned to bring a final report about school absentee rates to the subcommittee's next meeting in late July.

The top page of the draft report -- titled "Attendance Data" -- was partially visible to a Gazette reporter Tuesday. The report broke down attendance data by schools, counting students who had five or more absences, and those with 10 or more absences.

Most schools on the list reported 3 percent to 5 percent of students had 10 or more absences. Cabell Alternative School reported a 30 percent absentee rate. Some elementary schools had no students with 10 or more absences.

Students who are chronically absent are more likely to drop out of school.

After the meeting, Courts explained that some students with multiple absences switch schools, and students "carry" previous absences with them to their new schools. So absences accumulated at the old school also get counted as absences at the new school.

"You have duplicative counts," she said.

Also Tuesday, Courts distributed a list of 13 dropout prevention initiatives in which the Department of Education has taken part.

Those include a "pilot early warning system" that helps principals, teachers and counselors identify students likely to drop out of school. The computer system starts tracking students in the sixth grade. The data spotlights failed classes, multiple absences and discipline infractions.

"It gives principals, counselors and teachers specific information that they can use to target students and develop interventions," Courts said.

Lawmakers didn't seem all that impressed with the 13 dropout prevention initiatives.

"I'm not sure what's new in there that hasn't been tried before," said Sen. Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel.

The subcommittee is studying how to encourage children to attend school and how to reprimand students and their parents for truancy.

Several circuit judges are urging the Legislature to take a tougher stand on parents who allow their children to skip school. Last year, Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis organized 14 meetings across West Virginia to talk about expanding judicial truancy programs.

Under state law, students can't drop out of school until they're 17, and they can lose their driver's license if they miss 15 or more days of school.

Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, who works as an assistant prosecuting attorney, said the truancy problem begins with parents.

"It starts with children in kindergarten and the first grade," Marcum said. "They're trained at a young age that they're allowed to do this."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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