Julie Curtis has seen the discouraging statistics at school districts throughout Spokane County and the state of Washington – increasing dropout rates, troubling levels of absenteeism and a puzzling lack of resources for students who find themselves falling behind in class-time and credits.
From her office at Spokane County Juvenile Court, Curtis facilitates programs like the at-risk youth petition, a court-monitored list of guidelines for adolescents who present a danger to themselves or others or who may have reoccurring issues with substance abuse or running away from home.
Curtis said school attendance – or lack of it – is a common theme among those who qualify for the petition.
“I’d say 99 percent have school problems,” she said. “It starts with truancy, then moves into the criminal justice system. If you can keep kids in school, they’re just going to be a lot more successful.”
In the West Valley School District, the emphasis on keeping students in school helped form the foundation for a unique program that has become the standard for establishing stability in the classroom and beyond.
West Valley’s Community Truancy Board – comprised of district administrators, local residents and representatives from area businesses and nonprofit groups – serves as a valuable resource for students and their families, addressing a range of causes that have led to less-than-stellar levels of attendance and achievement. Curtis said the board provides an additional layer of support between the school district and the court system.
“It really makes a difference,” Curtis said. “The board is able to identify a lot of issues that may be leading to truancy. It’s something I wish other districts had in place.”
Such a shift may be happening in the near future.
Washington State University is in the process of studying the West Valley board as an example of a program that could be implemented in other districts throughout the state. Last year, East Valley added a truancy component, based largely on the success at WV.
“It’s that extra layer of support,” said WVHS Principal Gary Neal. “We talk about it at the beginning of the school year, so students are aware of it. It’s part of our mission to prepare them for life after high school.”
At Spokane Valley High School, a project-based school in the West Valley School District, principal Larry Bush said the success of the truancy program is based largely on effective communication.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a student an alarm clock,” he said. “It’s designed to be a problem-solving support system.”
For the past two years, Martin Kolodrup, an employee of Spokane County Juvenile Court has worked as the truancy specialist in the West Valley district, providing case management for students who go through the program. A former probation officer, Kolodrub said truancy goes beyond poor attendance.
“Sometimes they’re at school, but there are no grades,” he said. “Truancy is as much about behavior than anything else.”
Kolodrub provides students and their families with resource information in a wide range of areas including housing, healthcare, transportation and nutrition. Goals and priorities are also emphasized.
“Society shouldn’t forget that these kids have goals just like everyone else,” he said. “Adults need to talk less and listen more. You have to listen to what the problem is. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to help someone and get them back on track.”
Of the 139 students who were sent to the truancy board last year, only 11 percent wound up going to court. There were no students sentenced to detention and none were found in contempt.
“It’s a real credit to the West Valley School District and Martin,” said Scott Stevens, an administrator at Juvenile Court. “That step in-between has meant figuring out what can be done to make a difference.”