Truancy rates low, school says program works

Posted at 2:45 PM, Mar 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-03 15:51:35-05

Call it ditching, skipping or playing hooky – these high school students have done it.

"It was mainly because I didn't have the motivation to go to school anymore at that point,” says Wendy Mejia, a junior student at Bellevue West High School. “Like, if I wanted to skip a class –I would just skip a class.”

Freshmen student Kat Rodriguez, also at Bellevue West, has also ditched class.

"If you're going to school and you don't really have somewhere where you belong or fit in, then you really feel [like an] outcast and kind of makes you feel lonely,” Rodriguez says.

Their excuses may sound trivial, but school leaders take their concerns seriously.

"We found that students who are disconnected from school, there's also some disconnect within the family,” says Mahatma Largaespada, a student advocate from the Latino Center of the Midlands.

At Bellevue West, Largaespada runs Pathways to Success which aims to reduce truancy while also improving student performance. The Latino Center created the program after it realized area students were falling through the cracks.

"It was a program they started at Omaha South,” says Kevin Rohlfs, the principal of Bellevue West. “We heard a little bit about it. And then they reached out and they were looking to expand the program and asked if we were interested. And we leaped at the chance to work with the Latino Center."

That was nearly two years ago. The program is also offered at Bryan High and an after-school version is at Bellevue East High. At Belleuve West, the program is available throughout the school day in a room dedicated to the students. Inside the crafted space, Largaespada often discusses students’ performance; hosts group discussions related to academia, as well as, issues teenagers face; and it also serves as a hang out spot for students, especially during lunch.

For Mejia, she says the program altered her attitude about school and academic career.

 "If I continued not wanting to go – especially in high school when I needed to graduate – I guess I would have just dropped out by then honestly,” Mejia says.

According to multiple studies, students are more likely to drop out instead of play catch-up when their grades start to slip.

A 2014 report by the Center for American Progress found high school dropouts earn almost 28 percent less than graduate and make around $300,000 less over a lifetime.

As the authors of the report put it: school absence can equal workforce absence.

"We start with the 10 days a semester which the state has kind of identified as the cutoff point,” Rohlfs says. “So we're looking for students who are over that. Typically, if students start to miss 10-15 days of school, their grades start to slide."

Under current state law, truant students may be referred to the county attorney's office. School leaders say the program's goal is to intervene before students reach that point. And it appears to be working

At Omaha South Magnet, Bryan and Bellevue West high schools, 106 students were in the program for the 2014-2015 school year. Half of them improved their attendance on average by 40 percent while 96 percent of seniors in the program graduated on time. Of the 23 graduating seniors, 74 percent enrolled in college, a trade school or joined the military.

At Bellevue West, students say the program is working because of Largaespada

"When you don't really have a male figure in your life and you have someone like showing you all this care towards you and like love and respect – you kind of get that family loving relationship on," Rodriguez says.

Largaespada's approach to the truancy problem is simple

"If I let them know who I am – if I [offer] self-disclosed [information] – they would see that I'm a real person that I have some of the same struggles as they are having right now,” he says. “I knew that was going to be enough for them to feel comfortable. So we could start talking about what the real issues are."