Monday, Dec 22, 2014

Schools seek ways to get kids to class

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— Pinellas County School Board members have heard a slew of proposals about how to improve behavior and performance in struggling classrooms.

But the first battle is getting students in their seats.

This school year, about 11 percent of high school students have missed 21 days of school or more, which is about 11.6 percent of the school year. That number is down slightly from 12 percent last year.

Meanwhile, in middle schools only 4 percent have missed more than 21 days of school, down from 5 percent last year, and in elementary schools 2 percent have missed 21 days, down from 4 percent last year.

In charter schools, almost 25 percent of students have missed 21 days, and 19 percent of students in exceptional, dropout prevention, secondary and virtual schools have missed that much time.

As a result, school officials are working to improve attendance and involving school workers from the principals to the psychologists, said Donna Sicilian, executive director of student services.

Sicilian said she will be working closely with area superintendents next year to monitor schools’ progress, hold weekly attendance meetings and look for the reasons kids don’t come to school.

“I think about all the things we do — sending calls to their parents and letters home and bringing them in to say they have to come to school — and we act like they don’t know they’re supposed to be here,” Sicilian said. “That’s really not the problem. Kids know they’re supposed to go to school. We need to look at why kids aren’t coming to school and build interventions around those reasons.”

Those interventions, whether helping a student who is struggling academically, being bullied or lacks support at home, need to be honed and available at every school, Sicilian said. The school district is wrapping up its first year with the Triage and Training team, a group of teachers and professional trainers that is deployed to schools where teachers are struggling to deal with academic and behavior problems, with individual students and entire classrooms.

The emergency teams consist of social workers and educational and behavior specialists who can respond to principals’ requests for assistance within 24 to 48 hours. The team will assess the situation, help teachers create an action plan to solve problems and to work with parents, and provide additional support as the teachers make changes.

This school year, the team has responded to 55 requests for help with student behavior, 19 requests for academic and behavior support, six requests for classroom or schoolwide help and two requests for academic help, all from elementary and middle schools. Of those, 59 requests came from schools south of Ulmerton Road.

“It sounds like it’s coming along well, but I’ve always been concerned that principals may not want to ask for the help,” school board member Linda Lerner said. “We still have schools that are facing some very intense challenges.”

The team doesn’t work with students in the district’s special education program, but the process could help to evaluate whether a student should be placed in a special education classroom. Likewise, giving teachers extra training for difficult students could help to keep a child in a general education setting, Sicilian said. Either way, the team produces information teachers can use to track students’ progress.

Area superintendents have been pushing schools to take advantage of the Training and Triage team before problems escalate and teachers enter crisis mode, Area 2 Superintendent Robert Poth said.

“I’ve heard nothing but positive things about it from the schools that have reached out for support, and they certainly know the program is there,” Area 4 Superintendent Barbara Hires said. “I’ve only heard that it helps school staff support those students that may be on track to enter special ed but aren’t quite there yet.”

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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