2017-11-16 / Opinion

EDITORIAL

It’s All Been Said Before: Now What?

Any of us in attendance at the Tuesday, Nov. 14 school committee meeting might be tempted to say that the disparity between committee members’ personalities and emotions overshadowed the importance of the meeting itself; but we feel that the real headline news did indeed occur at that meeting, in Principal Jared Vance’s statement that, “Approximately 150 students, or 20 percent of the student body, are absent on a daily basis.” (See full story on facing page.)

This has all been said before, literally, and this issue demands action. Here is a timeline of declarations by our own school officials, from the years 2013 to 2017, as reported in various editions of NTW.

Aug. 2013 A recent study conducted by Channel 12 reported that Rogers High School has the 13th highest rate of chronically absent students in the state, at 41 percent of students missing more than 18 days of the school year. Rogers principal James Nelson said, “family dysfunction” is the major cause of chronic absenteeism. “It’s about educating the parents,” he said. “Parents are a big part of the problem.”

Nov. 2013 An article by NTW reporter Meg O’Neil reported that School Committee Chair Charles Shoemaker told his fellow committee members that with regard to the chronic issue of truancy, a criminal complaint would be filed against the parent(s) of truant children. “The judge suggests we send a letter to let parents know there’s a new policy in town,” Shoemaker said. “Hopefully, once that bell is rung, other parents in the community will know that we mean business.”

Jan. 2015 The van Beuren Charitable Foundation announced awards of 80 grants totaling $4.7 million to Newport and Rhode Island organizations, including $114,885 to support the Newport Partnership for Families’ Chronic Early Absenteeism/Truancy Reduction Initiative (with Newport County Community Mental Health Center, fiscal sponsor).

April 2015 Absenteeism and truancy are “systemwide, citywide challenges,” said Newport Superintendent Colleen Jermain.

Jan. 2016 At a school committee meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, discussions began about a later start time for Rogers. At that meeting, in support of the change, school committee member Robert Leary said there have been 3,034 tardy incidents in the schools since the beginning of the academic year, with 749 at Rogers. He further stated, “There are a lot of days when you think about it. There are a tremendous amount of kids. This is something we should look at.”

April 2016 Keith Tavares, Newport Partnership for Families chairman and then vice president of institutional advancement at Child & Family, pointed out that Newport has the worst truancy rate in the state.

June 2016 In a June NTW article reporting school committee business, Superintendent Colleen Jermain said that chronic absenteeism has been a problem for several years. “[One] of the barriers we are seeing is transportation,” said Jermain, especially from the North End. Also at the meeting was Rogers Athletic Director Jim Cawley, who added that tardiness would be consistent, no matter what the schools did. “If you are going to be late at 7:30 a.m., you are going to be late at whatever time you set,” he said.

Sept. 2016 An NTW article on the school committee’s first meeting of the year noted, “In a campaign to address chronic absenteeism, School Committee Chair Jo Eva Gaines said that guidance counselors at Thompson are making the effort a family affair. Parents and students are being asked to sign a pledge of attendance. “Kids are being taught they are responsible for their own education,” she said. “Let’s hope they learn something.”

June 2017 As reported by NTW’s Brooke White, a grant from the Barr Foundation is funding a group of high school teachers to innovate around increasing attendance and decreasing tardiness.

October 2017 The van Beuren Foundation notified the school committee that it has awarded the district a three-year $260,000 grant to help in the Newport Partnership for Family’s efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism and truancy.

Nov. 2017 Nearly a year to the day, following the November 2016 election, Dave Carlin, who was re-elected for another term on the school committee, stated that he would set his sights on absenteeism and truancy, at Rogers in particular, but also at Pell. “We have done a dismal job,” he said. “Social promotion has got to be addressed.”

Newport Partnership for Families, a local association of agencies and organizations working to strengthen the community, has been joining the district to address the chronic attendance and truancy issue for the last three years through a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation and Van Beuren Charitable Foundation. Sharon Carter, director of NPF, said the funding has supported a student attendance facilitator working at each of the schools.

With Rogers almost four miles from the North End of town where the majority of students reside, it is unreasonable to think that the kids would walk to school, like the fabled Abe Lincoln in the snow, if they miss the bus. We’ve all been in high school and know what it’s like to oversleep and some of us have faced significant changes at home that make us late for the bus. As adults, most of us have other options when we encounter a breakdown in our modes of transportation.

How about a vehicle, a van, or a small bus, to go to any Rogers student’s home when he or she has missed the bus, to get the child to school?

Other ideas? We’re interested. The time to alter this situation is now.

Let November 2017 be the last marker on the timeline.

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