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This Leader Takes a Compassionate Approach to Truancy. It’s Transforming Students’ Lives

More students are missing more days of school than before the pandemic, which can lead to them falling behind academically, engaging in risky behaviors, feeling isolated and disengaged from their teachers and peers, and eventually dropping out of school.

And when students are identified as truant—meaning they’ve accumulated a certain number of unexcused absences, which varies by state—they and their parents can face significant penalties, including legal ones.

Sharon Bradley, the director of family and social services for the Plano Independent school district outside Dallas, doesn’t want students going down that road.

When she started in her role in 2017, the district was sending hundreds of students to the county’s truancy court each year, a punitive approach that she felt was unlikely to deepen students’ connection with school. Bradley launched the Plano Attendance Review Board to better identify the root causes for unexcused absences—and find solutions.

Last school year, the district sent about two dozen students to truancy court, a far cry from the 444 referrals in the 2017-18 school year.

Bradley, a 2024 EdWeek Leaders To Learn From honoree, spoke to Education Week about how the attendance review board works and what it means to adopt a less punitive approach to absenteeism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s an example of a case that has gone through the attendance review board?

Recently, there was a family who came to the attendance review board. The parent had three students who were in Plano ISD schools, and they were absent quite a bit.

The family was experiencing housing instability. … And as we began to have conversations in the beginning, the mom didn’t want to disclose that because she was worried as to what could possibly happen. A lot of people could see that as possibly a neglectful situation.

But one thing about the attendance review board—we have an original hearing, the first time we hear the case. We probably wait four to six weeks and then we have another hearing. Four to six weeks later, we have another status hearing.

By the second hearing, [the mother] noticed that, you know what, they’re not here to judge me. They’re not here to blame me. They’re here to help. When she felt that trust and that comfort level, she was able to truly disclose what was standing in the way of her getting her kids to school every single day. Because we now knew what was going on, we could develop an individualized family-support plan.

We connected them with a community housing authority to see if we can get them more consistent housing. We also noticed that it was getting cool here, and the kids didn’t have coats. So we connected them with an agency that will provide coats.

The mom disclosed, “Hey, I have to go to work, and I have a high school student making sure that the younger children get up in the morning.” So we offered to give an alarm clock to make sure they have what they need. Then the mom began to disclose that there were some mental health issues—some anxiety, some depression—that her children were experiencing because of the instability. We linked them with LifePath, a mental health provider here in the Dallas metroplex.

Kids, when they miss school, get behind in their coursework. We were able to connect with the [school] administrators: “When are tutoring sessions taking place? Can you talk with the teachers to make sure the children have what they need in order to make up?” One of the students, we noticed, didn’t like to come to school on test days. We connected with a counselor so the child can feel empowered to present their best self during test days.

We brought them back for another hearing, and the attendance for all kids [had] increased. We can choose to send a kid on to the county [truancy court] or we can continue to monitor them. And that’s what we’re doing, and they’re doing great.

What kind of overall mindset shift has this been for educators in the district?

Oh, man. It is shifting from this punitive approach to more of a social service, collaborative approach. It used to be one person on the campus [who] was responsible for attendance or for truancy prevention. Now, we’ve encouraged each campus to develop a team—whether it’s administrators, counselors, even parents, even students being a part of this team.

I think where adults miss the mark is that we don’t ask the children, how can we create a learning environment where students want to be, rather than where they have to be. Sometimes, school refusal has nothing to do with physical barriers. They want to know: Do they feel welcome when they come into the building? Do they feel as if they belong? Can they show up as their true, authentic selves? Do students have a positive relationship with the adults in the building? Do students have a positive relationship with their peers?

How can you reduce absenteeism before students get to the point of needing to go before the review board?

There’s a quote [by risk-management expert Gordon Graham]: What is predictable can be preventable. Before school even starts, I pull a list of students in the entire district who have shown patterns of chronic absenteeism in the previous school year or the previous semester. And I bring the troops together, and my team and I do home visits. We call them welcome back visits. We let them know that yes, we know last year was tough. But guess what? This year, we’re going to work together to make sure that you have all you need to be successful this school year.

Then as we go into the school year, we provide each campus, each teacher, each administrator with [tiered intervention] strategies so they can implement them on their campuses.

What have been some of the challenges of this work?

We’re trying to undo decades of old ways of thinking. Like, if the kid doesn’t come, there should be a consequence, that sort of thing. I think we need to just take the time to pause—because there’s a lot of power in pause—to have a conversation to see what is really going on. Instead of issuing consequences, let’s No. 1, articulate our expectations and then offer support.

And I will say one of my challenges in the beginning was funding. This was a pilot program, to begin with, and it is not necessarily written in school district budgets. I’ve been very blessed to write [and receive] some grants. We’ve had some great partnerships, [including with] the Dallas Mavericks. There are lots of people who see this big vision and this different vision, and they want to be a part of it.

This work, it takes all of us. When all of us accept the collective responsibility, and we all are willing to do the collective work, it is then we are going to see the collective change that we seek.

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