Niagara Gazette

January 11, 2013

Falls district addressing truancy problems

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Truancy and tardiness are an ongoing issue in the Niagara Falls City School District. Combined, they’re multi-faceted problems educators throughout the country have struggled with.

But Superintendent Cynthia Bianco and Assistant Superintendent Mark Laurrie believe some of the programs the district has in place are set up to help curb at least a few of the most dangerous cases.

“If it was easy to solve, we’d have it solved already,” Bianco said. “We’re doing what we can with what we have.”

What is the district doing? There are a lot of programs Niagara Falls is involved in, partnered with the county Department of Social Services, to stop children from skipping school or arriving late.

The administrators brought two of it efforts before the district’s School Board Thursday to provide status reports and to answer any questions the board had about performance.

Both Ricardo Herrera and the Rev. Jimmie Seright believe their program, a focused approach designed to address the most troublesome cases of absences at the preparatory school level, has been helping both children and parents they’ve come across.

“We’re identifying the families and we knock on their doors,” Herrera said. “We do everything we can to make sure parents understand what educational neglect is, what problems it can create and what it can mean going forward.”

The program has spent months working with about 23 students going to school at either LaSalle or Gaskill prep schools. These are the ones, Laurrie said, who are at an extremely high risk of being lost if they get to high school with the same attitude they carry in middle school, likely to end up in a life of crime without the right guidance.

It’s here where Seright and Herrera step in, sitting down with the entire family, sometimes continuously for two weeks at a time. And what’s happening is they’re finding out some of the issues aren’t related to bad parents, but rather unfortunate situations beyond the control of people living their lives.

An example Herrera used had a single parent working at 6 a.m., unable to ensure their child is awake and off to school at the proper time. He said it isn’t neglect, but rather an inability to both provide and oversee every aspect of life.

“The problems could be other things than being neglectful,” Herrera said. “It could be these parents are just overwhelmed.”

The good news, Herrera said, is the program appears to be working. He said about 70 percent of the students he’s been working with over the course of the almost nine months the program’s existed have shown a reduction in tardiness and truancy.

The district is spending $30,000 per year on the program, with another $30,000 contributed by the DSS. It’s also spending $30,000 a year on a program run by Ron Cunningham.

Unlike the focused program examined Thursday, Cunningham has spent more time looking at districtwide issues and the numbers he’s dealt with show a large-scale problem. He told the school board he’s dealt with about 200 cases since the beginning of the year and 46 in December alone.

Cunningham said he views each and every case as a blight on the country.

“Every kid we lose is an insult to America,” Cunningham said. “We need to be looking for the solution, but we also need to make sure we apply the solution correctly. This truancy program requires all hands on deck.

“You have to understand something about these students. They don’t care want to know how much you know, they want to know how much you care.”