Hooky players in Kentucky's Walton-Verona Independent School District don't stand a chance. If students log more than two unexcused absences in a row, they're guaranteed a visit from a two-man district team charged with keeping kids in school. Maybe administrator Larry Davis will knock on their door. Or perhaps Boone County Sheriff's Deputy Jan Wuchner will show up, asking for an explanation of why they're missing school.
The result of the intensive, hands-on approach to student attendance, called Schools and Families Empowered, or SAFE, is a drop-out rate that's non-existent. That's right: For the last three years, no Walton-Verona student has dropped out of school. All this in a state where the graduation rate is about 66 percent, and one in five state residents don't have a high school diploma.
As far as state education officials can tell, the 1,000-student Walton-Verona district is the only one in Kentucky with a zero drop-out rate. That distinction has earned the northern Kentucky district accolades from the state Department of Education and attention from other state districts who want to know how the district does what it does.
The formula for success is simple, Davis says: persistence and shoe leather. It's not accepting the first explanation for why students are chronically absent; it's looking beyond the obvious to what's below the surface. From August to April this year, Davis had made 125 home visits to a core group of about 60 students who made up the bulk of the SAFE program.
Delving Deeper into Problems
"We go as many times as it takes," Davis says. "When a kid wants to drop out of school, it's just a symptom of a larger problem."
Maybe the child is sick all the time, but the family can't afford health insurance and doesn't have the cash to visit a doctor. Sometimes the parents aren't aware that their children are skipping school, or there's an underlying situation, such as a pregnancy that the student doesn't want to discuss with the parents. Davis has filled out forms for the state's child health-insurance program, made doctor appointments, found free dental care and served as a family counselor. In one instance, Davis visited a home where the family had no beds. The children who lived there were so tired they either slept through school or didn't make it all.
So Davis rounded up beds and bedding for the family.
"A lot of times the barrier that's keeping the youngster from coming to school to begin with is not education-related," says Walton-Verona Superintendent Robert Storer.
Yet, a string of absences quickly becomes an education problem. That's why Davis and Wuchner spring into action well ahead of the state's truancy law, which doesn't allow the courts to declare students habitual truants until they've missed 10 days of school. By that time, students probably are well on the way to failure, Storer says. Instead of waiting for the court system to spring into action, the SAFE program follows up on unexcused absences immediately, before students fall too far behind in their work.
Walton-Verona is no poor, rural school district. Its mostly middle-class population lives on the cusp of suburbia, 20 miles south of downtown Cincinnati, where farmland evolves into subdivisions and upscale developments. Yet, about 22 percent of the district's population qualifies for free- or reduced-price lunches.
Meeting Higher State Standards But Walton-Verona's success is even more striking when you consider the context. For more than a decade, Kentucky's public schools have operated under the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which came out of a decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court that the state's school-finance law was inequitable. The Kentucky state legislature decided in the early 1990s to tie funding to accountability, developing a stringent set of standards that districts and students must meet and a statewide testing system in which students must show improvement from year to year.
One of those standards is making sure that all students leave public schools and find success in life. Districts must track high school graduates for two years after they leave school. If the graduates don't find success in jobs or post-secondary education, they're recorded as drop outs, says Gene Kirchner, Walton-Verona's assistant superintendent.
Such high stakes can leave some students discouraged, but Walton-Verona tackled that problem in 1994 when the district increased the expectations of all students. While the state requires only 22 credits for high school graduation, Walton-Verona High School students must log 27 credits. Statewide, all students must take Algebra I and geometry. Seventy percent of Walton-Verona's graduates make it through Algebra II and take two years of foreign language, Kirchner says. The results have shown up in test scores; the district currently has the fourth-highest overall test scores in the state of Kentucky, according to Kirchner.
Yet the district didn't want to raise the bar and see student failure increase, too, Kirchner says. That's where SAFE entered the picture.
District officials decided they needed to create a liaison between the court system and the school, and between the school and families. A three-year federal grant for $30,000 provided the seed money Walton-Verona needed to get the program off the ground. The money paid for Davis' salary and some capital expenditures, such as computers. During the program's second year, a grant from the county sheriff's department allotted school resource officers to every middle and high school in Boone County. That's how Wuchner wound up assigned to Walton-Verona High School, which serves students from grades 7-12.
Solving Elementary Problems Davis, a retired high school principal, jumped at the chance to shepherd such a program. During his years as a building administrator, he often lamented that he didn't have the time to personally follow up on students who needed individual attention.
"I never got to end it," he says. "I never had time."
Now he can follow students from the earlier grades to their passage from high school. Many times, chronic truancy shows up in elementary school, Storer says. The 60 students in the SAFE program aren't culled only from the high school; many are in the elementary grades. That's where habits-good or bad-are formed, Storer says.
It took awhile to gain the trust of some families, Davis says. When a school official shows up on the doorstep, there's often suspicion, especially if the adults themselves didn't have particularly good experiences in school. But the approach of Davis and the district isn't to condemn but to help. Sometimes the family benefits from the services of an outside truancy mediator, who sits down with the parents, child and the school district to determine what's causing the problem. Then the parties draft an agreement that everyone can live with.
"The core of my job is building rapport and good communications between families and the school," Davis says.
And the persistence is paying off. Now Davis often will receive calls from frustrated parents who can't motivate their children to go to school.
"There've been times I've almost physically taken students out of bed," Davis says. "Once the parents see you care, they open up. Then they want to invite you to dinner."
Walton-Verona's approach has proven successful; last school year its attendance rate was 96 percent. Earlier this year that success earned the district a Kentucky Learning Talks Award. District officials also have been host to visitors from other districts eager to learn about SAFE and have presented talks at conferences. Such a hands-on, intensive initiative might not work everywhere, says Lisa York Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.
It's expensive, to begin with. But much of what makes SAFE work can be copied in other ways, Gross says.
"All the components of that program might not work in another district," Gross says. "But districts can take bits and pieces of Walton-Verona and use it. They tend to get the community involved in their schools, and that probably contributes to the low drop-out rate."
And fortunately for the school district, the SAFE program's success has earned it more than just recognition. The Northern Kentucky Independent Health District has agreed to fund SAFE, just as the federal three-year grant money is running out.
Kate Beem, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a freelance education writer based in Kansas City, Mo.