School District, Hilltop Work Together to Reconnect Students and Families With Schools
MONTROSE – If you have a child who attends public school in Montrose, educators want him or her in school tomorrow and the day after that. Solving truancy issues within Montrose County RE-1J schools has been a community collaboration for the past three years, and officials are pleased with the efforts so far.
Kids have always cut class or decided, for whatever reason, to stay away. Past initiatives by RE-1J to send juvenile students who missed school to court was deemed too costly for the district to pay for and not in the best interest of the student. As more alternative schools began to open, new therapies and research on how to keep students and families engaged in school began to surface. District educators began reaching out to Hilltop — a community service organization — for help.
"Truancy courts are very punitive in nature," Assistant Superintendent Kirk Henwood said.
"So we said let's come up with a different way," said Kaye Hotsenpiller, director of regional services for Hilltop in Montrose. “It’s not just a school issue, but a community issue.”
Working with Montrose County's Health and Human Services and researching programs in other school districts, Kaye said, the district and Hilltop began to create a proactive, rather than punitive, approach to keep students coming back to class.
“What we found were the most successful programs, the most effective, are ‘pull-in programs,’ Henwood said. "We don't want to push them away from school, we want to pull them back in as much as it takes.
A pilot program began in the 2011-2012 school year and funding to expand the program to all district schools came a year later.
"What we found is early intervention works," said Hilltop Case Manager Kortni Grett. "We needed to work with kids and their families. We needed an advocate in each school to implement the process.”
Now, in its third year, the district has seen a measurably-reduced number of absences at the elementary school level, and a lower dropout rate at district high schools. For the first time in four years, attendance has not dropped in Montrose schools.
When a child misses four, non-consecutive, unexcused days, a teacher or administrator makes a phone call home to connect with the parent or guardian about the absences.
"We feel parents want to have that personal connection with the teacher or school," Grett said.
The next step in the process is a letter of concern sent home after six unexcused days, offering help from the school to the parents to try and find solutions to curb the child's absence gaps. The third step is for a Hilltop advocate to make contact with the child at school.
"Sometimes it's a parent forgetting to call in that their child is missing school, sometimes it's something else going on at home and that's when we say, "OK it's time to help this family," Grett said.
Hotsenpiller said Hilltop advocates will even go to a student's home to make sure they are awake in the mooring to go to school.
"’OK, Johnny, its time to wake up,’ or ‘OK, Johnny we’re not going to hang out in front of the library today, you’re going to school,’" Hotsenpiller said.
After ten days of absence a second letter is sent home seeking to set up a meeting with the parents and school administrators. After 10 days the student can be referred to an interagency group composed of members from the school district, Hilltop, Health and Human Services, the Center for Mental Health, the state's Department of Juvenile Justice and even local law enforcement.
"We brainstorm with the family, and the family can select what services they want and decide what services that they truly need," Hotsenpiller said of the group known as the Interagency Service and Support Team, or ISST. Last semester, the ISST received 11 referrals for cases in which the student had amassed an alarming number of unexcused absences.
According to data provided by Hilltop, in the first semester of 2013-2014, Hilltop made phone calls to 255 parents or guardians and sent out 492 letters of concern; 252 of those letters went to parents of Montrose High School students.
"I think it's innovative for them to open up their schools to a non-profit agency asking for help," Hotsenpiller said.
Both Henwood and Hotsenpiller agree curbing truancies at the elementary school level is critical for the student's academic success and parents play a huge role in preventing unexcused absences.
"It’s not just a school issue but a community issue," Hotsenpiller said.
Hilltop reports that students in elementary schools have missed up to 52 days of school during a school year. Of 255 phone calls last fall, 119 involved elementary school students, the majority from Johnson Elementary School.
"Truancy is a huge issue, and unfortunately it happens at the elementary level," Grett said.
Henwood said more than 80 percent of dropouts in the state can be identified as having truancy problems while in public education.
He said it is hard to point out "what and why" students miss school, but the district is now working two find new ways to keep the student engaged. The district is working to place students with truancy issues in the right setting to achieve, Henwood said. He said the program has expanded to not only examine unexcused absences, but all absences.
Funding for the program comes from the Colorado 1451 collaborative management program, which is funded by the state legislature.
“That money is meeting student's needs proactively,” Henwood said. "Montrose is in a very fortunate position because of our very strong relations and colaborations with those agencies.”
Hilltop has been working in Western Colorado since 1950. For more information about their services, visit www.htop.org.