At Orr Middle School, there are at least seven opportunities to skip class during the day.
They occur during the transition between class periods, a few minutes in which hundreds of students swarm the school’s campus, which has a more open design than most other schools. The mall next door makes escape even more enticing.
That may explain why Orr struggles with chronic absenteeism, said Principal Anthony Nuñez. Last school year, 39 percent of students were absent 10 percent or more of the total days they were enrolled.
A new Clark County School District pilot initiative aims to lower that figure, targeting 15 schools — the five elementary, five middle and and five high schools with the highest chronic absenteeism rates, including Orr. It includes personalized messages to absent students, an awareness campaign on public transportation and more attention from dedicated attendance officers.
The strategy is to take a less rigid, impersonal approach to absenteeism and become more proactive to get to the root cause of why students are skipping school.
“What we’ve really tried to do this year compared to last year is transition from a punitive response to one of a response of intervention,” Nuñez said.
Meanwhile, Clark County also will roll out a new truancy prevention program funded by a new sales tax of one-eighth of a cent, spending an estimated $12 million on part-time family advocates who will visit the homes of frequently absent children and open three new juvenile assessment centers to provide support for truant students, among other initiatives.
Absenteeism is a problem that has caught the attention of the county and district employees alike. Last year, the county tallied 800 cases of educational neglect — instances in which parents were referred to Child Protective Services for habitually truant students. Schools are also penalized in the state accountability system for any absence, whether excused or unexcused.
The officials hope that the two initiatives will keep kids in class, improving school accountability ratings and keeping students off the path to the criminal justice system.
The district’s proactive method
The 15 pilot schools will add their own personal touch to attendance requirements outlined in state law. While the district will continue to alert parents upon every third, sixth and ninth unexcused absence, pilot schools will also leave a personalized voice message from the principal at the homes of every student who is absent each day.
“Instead of, ‘Here’s what happens when you don’t go to school,’ flipping (the message) into, ‘We really want you in school,” said Tammy Malich, assistant superintendent of the education services division.
Schools will also send home letters comparing their child’s absences with the schoolwide average, a method that officials say could provide a stronger motivation for parents.
And while other district schools will continue to have a dedicated attendance officer, pilot schools will have three officers who will spend more time with kids who continue to miss classes.
For some schools like Orr and Manch Elementary, the initiative is a boost to current efforts to fight absenteeism.
Orr put a fence around its perimeter a few years back, and this year it has tapped the Data Insight Partners consulting firm to provide a personalized report card for students that not only shows their attendance and grades, but also their hopes and dreams for the future.
Nunez said that has helped build stronger relationships with students.
“What I would do is I would pull somebody in and say, ‘Hey, what do you want to be when you grow up? I see this is where your goals and aspirations are, let’s talk about how you’re actually executing that,’ ” he said.
Manch Elementary, meanwhile, has built up a variety of wraparound services over the years. That includes working with Boys Town Nevada, a nonprofit that makes home visits that help address behavioral issues.
“My long-term goal for Manch is what it’s always been, to create a spot where kids feel safe,” said Principal Brandon Danowski.
The county’s support
Meanwhile, the county plans to use the revenue from the increase in sales tax to tackle truancy in the community. That includes spending an estimated $3.9 million on three new Harbor locations to support chronically truant students in North Las Vegas, Henderson and the northeast part of the valley.
The two existing Harbor juvenile assessment centers provide services for students who are referred there through school police and other agencies — part of an overall effort to intervene in children’s lives before they end up in the criminal justice system.
Another estimated $1.56 million will fund up to 60 part-time family advocates who make family visits to understand the reasons behind a child’s absenteeism. Other funds will provide financial incentives for schools that improve attendance, support a county marketing campaign to raise awareness about truancy, and provide other assistance for students.
“Nobody can argue the fact that these are meaningful interventions,” said Jack Martin, director of the county Department of Juvenile Justice Services. “The reality is how do we get into the communities that need the most help.”