Photo: Jane Johnson
By Mandy Marksteiner
Jane Johnson assists Los Alamos High School Administration with truancy intervention.
“There are a number of reasons that students have unexcused absences,” Johnson said. “Some students, in the beginning, think they can get by with ditching and no one will notice or care, or they just don’t feel like going to class that day. Some students will ditch a class when they have a test coming up that they don’t feel prepared to take. They sometimes skip one class and use that time to prepare for the next class. It really becomes a serious issue when they have missed enough class time that their grades begin to suffer.”
No matter what the reason a student has for ditching class, Johnson makes sure that the problem gets addressed early.
This is Johnson’s fourth semester at LAHS. Her official job title is Youth Resiliency/Truancy Intervention Liaison.
The Juvenile Justice Advisory Board (JJAB) created this position three years ago in order to protect students from falling through the cracks.
By addressing the problem of unexcused absences early in the cycle, many students are prevented from becoming habitually truant, she said.
New Mexico has a mandatory attendance law, and students can actually lose credit for a class they have not attended at least 90 percent of the time.
“But we do not want to see them missing any classes at all, and have developed quite an effective early intervention process for when it happens,” said Johnson, who has a BA in Social Work and Criminal Justice from the University of Arkansas. “I feel that the work is important, and that it’s helpful for Administration to have someone in this position.”
Johnson coordinates with Administration to confront truancy problems in a timely manner and keep the process flowing.
Los Alamos High School has a system of specific intervention steps. The details change slightly from year to year as the system improves, but the steps have always progressed from letters home and meetings with Administration initially, to referrals to Children, Youth, and Family Department (CYFD) for the most serious cases.
Los Alamos is a community where a strong emphasis is placed on education, so our school attendance is among the best in New Mexico and CYFD referrals are very minimal.
From her office in LAHS Room #A-106, Johnson monitors attendance, meets with students who have unexcused absences, and completes all the paperwork necessary to ensure that students face the consequences of unexcused absences, and get back on track.
Last year there were approximately 200 students who experienced the first step of intervention in the truancy system. Half of those students did not progress to the second step, so Johnson’s efforts are making a difference.
“We’ve had a significant reduction in unexcused absences,” said LAHS’s new Assistant Principal Carter Payne.
This year students who are Tardy (arriving to class within 10 minutes after the bell) or Late (arriving 10 minutes after class has started) will also become involved in the system and receive consequences.
“Students are often late because they get distracted in the hall on their way to their next class. Sometimes they’ll run into their friends and forget the time,” Johnson said. “But if they are not in attendance when class starts, they miss valuable information and instruction, and if class is interrupted by latecomers, it’s hard for teachers to make progress and hard for the rest of the class to concentrate.”
Johnson explained that the main thing parents and students need to realize is how important attendance is to overall success.
“You can’t get good grades without being in class. When students’ grades start slipping, they think, ‘what’s the point of going – I probably can’t pass this class anyway.’ It then becomes a downward spiral,” Johnson said. “The school takes attendance very seriously and intervention steps are in place to help prevent failure.”
When skipping class is a sign of a deeper problem
“The school administrators and staff do everything they can to help students succeed,“ Johnson said. “Last year the assistant principal sometimes met with at-risk students every week, even checking in with a few on a daily basis — whatever it took to keep them goal-oriented.”
One of many programs supported by JJAB to help at-risk youth at LAHS is Saturday School. In its second year of existence, this program provides students a chance to complete and get credit for school work.
Some attendees are assigned Saturday School as a consequence for unexcused absences, but others are there to take advantage of that uninterrupted block of time to focus on a project or improve their grades.
It is a very popular program with students and has been heavily attended.
It can be frustrating when a student is sent to one program for truancy, and sent to another program for drug abuse, while the child’s family may be seeking support for behavioral problems; and yet all the issues remain separate when a synchronized effort would be more effective, Johnson said.
JJAB is working to overcome this obstacle by establishing a Youth Resource Advocate position.
“We’re trying to put together a coordinated response, and work out a plan with the family,” said Municipal Judge Alan Kirk who chairs JJAB’s Board. “What we’re trying to do is get help before help is required.“
To find out more about the Los Alamos Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, visit www.losalamosjjab.com