Merrimack joins task force to address school truancy

Judge Mark Newman has watched student-after-student stand in front of his court over the last 12 years to answer for skipping school. It's not always an easy problem to fix, Newman said.

Now Merrimack’s School of Education & Social Policy is part of a coalition including the court system, the Haverhill School Department, community agencies and health agencies investigating the causes of truancy among students and ways to improve attendance.

 “There are issues, in my jurisdiction, for children who don’t go to school,” said Newman, an associate justice in the Essex County Juvenile Court assigned to the Lawrence Juvenile Court. “We’ve come to realize these issues are complicated and often longstanding.”

The Attendance and Truancy Taskforce is expected to work at least a year, said Dan Butin, dean of Merrimack’s School of Education and Social Policy.

“We are trying through this initiative to change the mindset about truancy, from being about “at risk kids” to, instead, the idea of kids placed at-risk,” Butin said. “This change in mindset allows us to more clearly understand the problems and find better solutions.”

The task force’s first year will be used to gather information and develop a pilot project, Butin said.

 “When they brought it to me, I said this is an issue my school can contribute to,” he said.

“It’s actually very exciting, what’s going on here,” Newman said.

The project lets the school link theories to practices and have an impact on the community, he said.

The hope is to develop a program that can be studied and replicated in other school systems, Newman said.

Lorna Marchant, the supervisor of attendance for Haverhill Public Schools, said she hopes the data collected can be used to develop programing opening the lines of communication with families to help them overcome obstacles.

Sometimes there are issues such as transportation or having heat in the homes and the school system can direct families where to go to find the services needed, Marchant said.

Families sometimes see money, food and housing issues as bigger concerns than education, she said.

“We are kind of hoping this will bridge that gap,” she said.

The task force was Newman’s idea, but truancy needs to be tackled from multiple angles for any hope of solving the problem.

Truancy and chronic absenteeism is a national problem based along socio-economic lines, Newman said. Causes and potential solutions need to be studied in order to find a solution.

“It’s really affecting poor children living below the national poverty line,” he said.

Merrimack College’s participation includes Assistant Professor Christine Shaw in the School of Education and Social Policy, with help from graduate student Molly Goguen.

“It’s a very exciting project because of who’s at the table,” Shaw said. “The opportunity to work with committed stakeholders who see success in school as beyond the classroom, i.e. the involvement of the court system.”

Shaw is the former regional program director for the Northeast Regional Readiness Center which was based at Salem State University.

The study will focus on younger children as a key to breaking the pattern of truancy.

The elementary school years are when problems start to manifest themselves in at-risk students, Shaw said.

The at-risk children face myriad of challenges just getting to school and then participation in school, she said.

The college has research abilities to review studies and literature already published on successful programs to prevent absenteeism and truancy Shaw said.

The problem is that most of the research papers focus on older students rather than the elementary school-age students.

Past studies indicate social problems, housing and mental health issues within families all play roles in truancy and chronic absenteeism, Newman said.

The college’s organization of the education and social policy in a single department is an advantage bringing the fields of community justice and education together with the community, Shaw said.

“When dealing with youth and holistic approach to youth we have a great opportunity to be collaborative,” she said.

Newman is impressed by the college and Butin’s commitment to community engagement and the eagerness to take part in the taskforce.

“What’s amazing to me is his area of understanding community engagement,” Newman said.



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