Keeping Students in School and Out of Trouble
Chester County, SC
During the middle of a school day last February, Hank, a 16-year-old was walking alongside a road leading straight out of a small South Carolina town when he was stopped by a Chester County patrolman and a school official.
“I’ve been expelled,” Hank told the patrolman and school official who questioned him about him not being in school. “There’s no going back.”
“As an outsider looking in, it is so refreshing to see folks doing a lot with a little.”|
— Robert Valois, Ph.D.,
Chester County SS/HS evaluator and Professor, University of South Carolina.
Because Hank had also spent time in a Juvenile Justice facility for troubled teens, he felt that there were few options left for him in the community now that he had been expelled.
But the intervention official from Chester County’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiative contacted the middle school on his behalf and discovered that Hank had only been suspended from the ninth grade for several days, not permanently expelled.
The following day, Hank was back at school and to date has not missed a day of school.
“The presence of the Safe Schools initiative made Hank realize that he wasn’t going to be able to just walk around town without being noticed,” says Jaime Brock, the Truancy Intervention Specialist. “We let him know that there were people in the community that cared about what happened to him and students like him. Hank succeeded where many others fail. ”
Truancy rates in Chester County’s school district are among the State’s highest. When skipping school, these students aren’t sitting at home with Gameboys and daytime television, according to Chester County law enforcement officials. Each year, the police routinely “make contact” with truant juveniles for shoplifting or burglary.
Community Approach to Reducing Truancy
The SS/HS grant is helping change all that. It brought together law enforcement, juvenile justice, social services, and local businesses to craft a truancy ordinance allowing law enforcement officials to approach school-age children during regular school hours who are not on school campus and transport them to their schools.
The ordinance has penalties for parents who continually fail to provide effective supervision of their youth, giving them the choice between fines up to $50, jail sentences up to a month, or attending free parenting classes. Kelly Avery, the SS/HS project director, says that while the ordinance sends a message to the community that the school district cares for its students, it also rewards success stories.
One sixth grader was recognized for never missing a day of school since kindergarten and received a season pass to a local amusement park, donated by a local church.
The SS/HS initiative also launched other student and community-centered programs to support the ordinance. Its Anti-Truancy Campaign was a community-wide education campaign involving public events, billboards, posters, decals in storefronts, flyers and brochures to educate the community about truancy. A Truancy Mediation Center helped students resolve problems such as substance abuse that contribute to their skipping school.
Thinking Outside the Box on Truancy
Two other programs also contribute to truancy prevention. The Communities in Schools program works with students who are at risk of dropping out. Teachers recommend students for it, and they attend class twice a week. Courses cover character traits, responsibility, respect, and other important building blocks of what makes someone successful.
The Families and Schools Together program fosters a relationship between schools and families. It supports after-school tutoring and the Growing Graduates program, which helps parents become better readers so they can help their children learn to read. Project Director Avery says this is a much needed program in Chester County, where the adult illiteracy is nearly 70 percent.
“We’ve always tried to think outside the box,” Avery says. “We always keep in mind what’s behind truancy, like difficult home lives. We bridge the gap between the home and the school, getting the social worker out in the community working with families.”
All these efforts have paid off: In 2006, truancy in the middle school fell. And daytime crime in the county, such as shoplifting, has also been cut as a result of the truancy ordinance, according to Chester County Sheriff Robby Benson.
“As an outsider looking in, it is so refreshing to see folks doing a lot with a little,” said Chester County SS/HS evaluator Robert Valois, Ph.D., a University of South Carolina professor. “Truancy is down, and substance abuse is down in some areas,” according to the Chester County School District’s Schools Administrative Student Information (SASI).
With a wide-range of partners including the YMCA, Chester County Department of Juvenile Justice, the Cedar Grove Baptist Church, the Sheriff and Police Department, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, the SS/HS initiative’s truancy programs are in Chester County to stay. Chester School District Director of General Services Gaither Bumgardner says the initiative brings the community together to help keep students in school and parents more accountable. “This has established a thread of communication between a lot of agencies,” Bumgardner said. “It’s one of the few ways to help the fabric of our society.”
Communities on the Road to Success: Chester County, SC
The Chester County School District SS/HS Partnership is a comprehensive, community-wide collaboration. It recognizes that violence among young people can have many causes, including roots in early childhood, family life, mental health issues, and substance abuse, and no single activity can be counted on to prevent it. So, the initiative takes a broad approach, drawing on best practices in education, health, justice, social service, and mental health and working closely with a Community Advisory Board comprised of parents, students, and community-based organizations to help the community take action in reducing youth violence and at risk behaviors.