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Accounted For: In Cape Girardeau, Good Attendance Falls On The Parents

Jacob McCleland
Rhonda Dunham is the principal at Franklin Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Rhonda Dunham eases her way through the halls at Franklin Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Back in the day she was a student at Franklin.

Now she is the principal.

It’s quiet as Dunham strolls through the new, two-year-old facility. Very quiet. Most of the students are in their classrooms, studying away. Dunham slides up next to a pair of students who are taking a test in the hallway to see check their progress.

“Fine,” they respond in hushed voices as Dunham encourages them to do their best.

Research shows that to do well in school, kids need to be there. About four years ago, the Cape Girardeau school district recognized absenteeism as a problem and addressed it by implementing a new attendance procedure to put more of the burden of attendance on parents. 

“I mean, it’s not the easiest policy to follow, and we know kids get sick. But I think it’s the best thing for the students. We need them here,” Dunham said.

Parents now receive notices after three, five and eight absences. After the 10th absence, the Cape Girardeau prosecuting attorney will send a letter, and can file educational neglect charges.

“The next step after that is you will have to go before a judge to testify as to why your child is missing so many days,” Dunham said.

Before the new procedure, Dunham said there were no repercussions for missing school. Now, parents can get a fine, probation or even jail time.

Attendance is moving in the right direction at Franklin since the procedures were adopted. The proportional attendance rate in 2010 was 88.3 percent. It grew to 91.1 percent in 2013. 

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has since changed how it measures attendance. DESE now measures 90-90 numbers - they want 90 percent of kids in school 90 percent of the time. It is a different standard than proportional attendance because 90-90 numbers indicate if there are certain students who are chronically absent. A student who misses 10 percent of school loses three-and-a-half weeks of the year. That makes it difficult for kids to succeed academically.

Dunham said the biggest issue at Franklin Elementary is transience. Kids can move out of the Franklin attendance area and still go to school here, but attendance suffers if parents lack good transportation.

“One of the big things that we’ve noticed if a child comes to us from another district out of Cape Girardeau, if they have not been in school enough, by the time they try to catch up with us, they’re already behind,” Dunham said. “Research will tell you that child needs to be on schedule or on track or it’s going to be a lot harder for them. That’s when they get frustrated. That’s when they don’t want to come to school because it’s too hard.”

Like many schools that have issues with attendance, poverty is a huge problem for Franklin Elementary. Transportation, priorities and parents’ perceptions about education are enormous hurdles for this school where 87 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch.

Cape Girardeau School District superintendent Jim Welker believes the new attendance policy is paying off.

“One of the key factors in the success of a student academically at school is to have them there. We have to have them at school in order to teach them,” Welker said.

Welker said it is unclear if the new attendance policy has helped the district improve their 90-90 numbers because the DESE measure just came online last year. The proportional attendance rate, though, has improved districtwide from 85.6 percent in 2010 to 89.8 percent in 2013.

Welker is now considering ways to tweak the new attendance procedure.

“We’ve looked at, for example, developing attendance review boards at each of the buildings because in some cases students are absent because they have reason to be absent. Either they are sick or there are issues in the family or whatever. And other times they don’t,” Welker said.

The prosecutor’s investigator hand delivers between 80 to 100 letters per year to parents to tell them their kids have 10 unexcused absences. An additional missed day, and they prosecutor will press charges.

Cape Girardeau County assistant prosecutor Frank Miller says that letter is a wakeup call for about 90 percent of parents, who then make sure their kids get to class. 

“The side that I’m concerned about is that these children are getting an education and they get the tools to do whatever they want to do. And because their parents are slacking it shouldn’t be held against them. The child is the victim in these cases. A child who is not attending school, whose parents are not putting them in school and giving them the opportunity to learn,” Miller said. “It’s kind of mind-boggling.”

Since the policy first went into effect in the 2010-2011 school year, charges have been brought in 24 cases. There have been 10 convictions. Seven cases are still pending and the rest have been dismissed. Miller says in three cases, the parent served jail time.

Back at Franklin Elementary, principal Rhonda Dunham does not want to see that happen, and she’ll work hard with parents who are really trying, but just can’t get their child to class.

“We’re going to find some way to get that child to school,” Dunham said. “It’s just one of those things that you do everything you can to bring the child in.”

And find some way to keep the investigator from having to hand-deliver that letter.