By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When I was teaching English courses at a Henry County, Va. high school, I had plenty of duties to handle before I actually got up in front of the students and tried to pound some finer points of the English language into their heads. One duty for my homeroom class was to make sure everyone had actually showed up for school.
Most of my students were in their seats when the first bell rang, but there were a few who were absent at least twice a week. In some cases, I hardly knew anything about them because I rarely saw them. Some had problems at home and some just didn’t bother to show up. Either both their parents worked or they had one parent who worked, and thus there was nobody to ensure that they got on the bus and went to school.
One problem was the fact that Henry County was at that time a place in transition. In the past, manufacturing jobs in the textile and furniture industries supported the local economy. If a boy or girl dropped out of high school or graduated with indifferent grades, they could count on a parent or some other relative to help them get a job in one of the factories. Education simply was not a priority. One long-time teacher I worked with told me that many of the county’s adults did not have a high school diploma for that very reason. Fortunately, families were starting to realize that the old days were gone and that education counted. Many of the factories had closed when the jobs were shipped to other parts of the country or overseas.
Getting truant students to school was always a struggle in my day. I had to prepare make-up work for them, and whether that work would get done was always a question. Trying to help the truant students while keeping up with the other students was always a problem. I think the situation would have been different if the county had a program like the one now operating in Mercer County. Last year the Mercer County school system and the county’s circuit court judges came together with the state Department of Health and Human Resources to create a truancy program. I remember when the program was introduced to the county’s students. Judge Omar Aboulhosn told the students at PikeView High School that if they were truant, they could appear before him or his colleagues to work out the problem.
The goal of the program was not to punish them or their parents, but to find out why they were chronically missing school and find ways to address their problems, he said. There were many instances when a problem at home such as an ailing parent or lack of transportation was keeping a student out of class. Working with the county board of education and the state DHHR, the judges would try to work out a solution.
Sometime the solutions the judges institute are sour medicine from a student’s point of view. Aboulhosn said he has had game systems and cell phones confiscated because those items were part of the problem. Cell phones were always a problem when I was a teacher because they caused constant disruptions. And parents often wouldn’t back you up on that issue because they wanted to have instant contact with their children.
Just getting electronic distractions like those under control would have made a huge difference at my school.
After a year of operating this program, its participants are seeing results. Aboulhosn recently told reporter Kate Coil that truancy among students between the 12th and sixth grade had fallen by 85 percent and truancy among younger students, grades kindergarten through fifth, had decreased by 86 percent. The drive to reduce truancy appears to be making progress.
The program’s goal is to help students earn their high school diploma. That was the goal at my school, and too often I overheard the plans some students had on their minds.
They seemed oblivious to the fact that people in the drug trade have a short life span. Some end up spending long stretches of their lives in prison, and others literally die young. The teachers, probation officers, social workers and judges in the Mercer County program are helping the students find a path that doesn’t lead to a lifetime of trouble.
I sometimes wonder what became of my students. I like to think that they found worthwhile careers and can maybe write a decent sentence. I fear some of them ended up in prison or came to an even worse fate.
Some listened to me and my fellow teachers, and others had decided that they knew already what they needed to know. I hope the shock of discovering that you never really stop learning wasn’t too great. With the truancy program now operating in Mercer County, fewer students will miss school and miss out on what an education has to offer.
Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.