2014-01-24 / Front Page

Truancy is Top Tier Issue Again

By Tom Walsh

With its elevated place in American history, its mansions and its status as an international resort, Newport may seem an odd place to suffer chronic problems with public school truancy.

“Truancy’s been a big problem in Newport over the years,” said Charles P. Shoemaker, chairman of the Newport School Committee. “We have one of the highest truancy rates in the state.”

As the committee organized for another year, Shoemaker once again named truancy as a top tier issue for 2014, ranking with budget and educational concerns. “With the image that Newport has, people fall off their seats when they learn of the problems we have with truancy,” he said, adding that the problem is especially acute in the elementary grades.

Statewide statistics don’t lie. According to data compiled by Rhode Island Kids Count, an organization

that works to improve the health,
education, economic well-being
and safety of Rhode Island’s children: . 13 percent of Newport pupils in kindergarten through third
grade were chronically absent
from school during the 2011-2012
school year.
. 64 percent of Newport fourth
graders were reading at or above
the proficiency level in October,
2012. In Middletown that figure
was 75 percent. Eighty-six percent
of Portsmouth fourth graders read
at the proficiency level in October
2012. Among the four so-called
“core” cities as measured by poverty
rates, Providence was at 45 percent
proficiency, Pawtucket 60 percent,
Central Falls 42 percent, and Woonsocket 56 percent. “We were right
behind those four core cities,” Shoemaker said.
. 18 percent of Newport middle
school students were absent between 12 and 17 days in 2011-2012.
Fifteen percent were absent 18 or
more days.
. 18 percent of Newport high
school students were absent 12 to
17 days in 2011-2012. Thirty-eight
percent were absent 18 or more
days.
Kids Count maintains that successful students achieve reading
proficiency by the end of third
grade. Those who do not, the organization reported, “often struggle in
the later grades and are four times
more likely to drop out of high
school than their proficient peers.”
The organization also emphasized
the importance of early encouragement to read at home.
“Literacy begins long before
children encounter formal school
instruction in writing and reading,”
Kids Count reports. “Enhanced vocabulary,

comprehension and cognitive development can be seen in children under three years of age who are read to daily.”

“There has to be a firm parentchild relationship,” said Shoemaker. He added that poverty is a major factor behind the city’s truancy problems, especially in that Newport has a large inventory of lowincome housing.

Shoemaker said that past efforts to discipline chronically-absent school children have not worked well. By Rhode Island law, every child between the ages of 6 and 16 must attend school. School districts may bring truant students to Family Court for being “willfully and habitually absent” from school. The Family Court also has a truancy court that is held locally and less formally.

Shoemaker said efforts to legally address young truants have not worked well because the children are not the problem. “The problem is that the offending person is not the kid,” Shoemaker said. “It’s the parents.” He said Newport is ready to try a new strategy that would “bring offending parents into the courtroom. Hopefully under this plan parents will accept the court’s recommendation. And hopefully parents throughout the community will get the message.” Those who do not could face other action, including investigation by the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Shoemaker said no one should think a tougher stance against parents of chronic truants is too radical. “If a mother or father is depriving a child of education, then that’s abuse,” he said. “We’re not talking about the average parents here. These are people who are not taking proper care of their kids.”

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