Williamsport Area School District’s Attendance Improvement Court aims to keep students in school

CARA MORNINGSTAR/Sun-Gazette Shown, back row from left, are Glenn Griswold, supervisor of community support services with children and youth; Justin Ross, Williamsport Area School District freshman principal; Julie Caringi, Williamsport Area School District Middle School social worker; Jennifer Walker, Williamsport Area School District substitute high school social worker; Kate Harris, Williamsport Area School District ninth grade guidance counselor; and Lindsey Stopper, Williamsport Area School District guidance counselor intern. Sitting, front row from left, are Jennifer Linn, county judicial law clerk; County Judge Joy Reynolds McCoy; John Powell, outreach caseworker; and Ed Robbins, chief juvenile probation officer.

In an effort to encourage students to stay in school rather than fine parents for unexcused absences, Williamsport Area School District works with the county court system to provide Attendance Improvement Court.

Justin Ross, Williamsport Area High School freshman principal, said the program started about three years ago with Dr. Richard Poole, who was at the time the freshman principal and now the district director of student services, Judge Marc F. Lovecchio and Judge Joy Reynolds McCoy.

“The conversation started that we have too many students missing unexcused days,” Ross said. “The fall of 2014 is when they started to have the conversations, and it kicked off in the winter of 2015. I became involved the following fall.”

He said the very first winter only worked with four students, but now they have about 40 students in the program. They’ve expanded down to the middle school with Magisterial District Judges Christian D. Frey and William C. Solomon overseeing the middle school programs.

“It is truly a place that when students are struggling to attend school, we bring them in front of our team. We have conversations about how we can help them be successful,” he said. “A typical student … there’s usually a pattern. Grades and attendance run hand and hand. If they’re not attending school, often they’re grades aren’t very good.”

The idea behind the program is that by electing to participate in this roundtable discussion, they put aside the idea of fines, according to Ross.

“Previously … we would just start fining. We would make them appear in front of a magistrate. The magistrate would say you have to pay this much money, and they go on to that effect. Now it’s changing,” he said.

The absences have to be unexcused, unlawful absences. If a student misses school with an excuse from a doctor or has an approved absence, that absence is excused. After three unexcused absences, penalties started happening.

“After the third illegal absence, a letter was sent home. Once that family was informed and made aware, the next absence would start the fines,” said John Powell, outreach caseworker.

The group hoped for a better way to get students to stay in school rather than the fine system.

“We recognized a clear need for a team approach which could address the many varied reasons that contribute to absenteeism,” Lovecchio said. “Judge McCoy was instrumental in providing the initial structure and procedures. Her expertise in family court and dependency matters has been invaluable.”

So, they formed a round table group with county court, juvenile probation, children and youth, outreach and community services to help address any issues students might be facing to keep them out of school. Students and parents can volunteer to go through the program rather than paying the fines.

“The idea behind this round table is working with individual students to put support plans in face to avoid fines and ultimately for them to be successful in school to the point they’re graduating, with a diploma, and have successful next steps,” Ross said.

“The cooperation of the different agencies is without a doubt the machinery that makes this run. I continue to be very excited to be part of this and I could not be happier with our results.

McCoy said having different services represented at the discussion is important.

“I think that the biggest thing is that though school attendance is what brings everyone to the table, that’s not what the big picture issue is that we’re dealing with,” McCoy said. “It runs the gamut of all sorts of things. The fact that we have the people around this table that we do … we can brainstorm, we can collaborate and we can address the issue that the child is facing.”

She said that if there is a past trauma, they can get the student into counseling. If there is a family struggling financially, they can connect the family to resources to help.

Lovecchio said that these issues are often hard for students to overcome.

“We can’t forget that many of these students don’t simply refuse to come to school. They have a plethora of obstacles that get in the way,” he said. “We are attempting to address the entire scope of issues and doing so rather successfully.”

McCoy said the program itself is incentive and sanctioned based. She said the group talks to the student, puts a plan in place and then gives incentives for the student to reach.

“Whether it’s to meet their goals, whether it’s not missing school or keeping passing grades, we come up with a plan we think the kid can meet because we want them to succeed,” she said. “Incentives have been things like gift cards, waiving athletic fees, pay some summer school, helping them, summer pool passes, alarm clocks, bus passes … “

McCoy said she and Lovecchio also have attended students’ school events, like baseball games, as a reward for hitting goals. She said some of the sanctions are having to attend after school tutoring until grades come up or seeing a judge formally if they don’t follow through with the program.

“Judge Lovecchio likes to bring them in to sit on an afternoon of probation violation hearings for adults,” McCoy said. “Most of those individuals don’t have their high school education, which is the point he’s trying to drive home to these kids.”

Powell said that’s been very effective for students to see first hand.

“I think it’s just more consistency, and they can actually see what the end result is if they’re not coming to school and graduating,” he said. “If they’re not being successful in life, that’s the other direction. Drugs, stealing, ending up in the criminal justice system.”

He said he’s seen some great results.

Ross said everyone around the table can’t see it, but he can see it in the district.

“By putting a consistent system in place, … the improvement we’ve been able to make on attendance has been great. Students don’t want to mess with Attendance Improvement Court, they don’t want anywhere near it. They bring in their excuses that they need to or they’re at school,” he said. “We’ve put other pieces in place at school to prevent students from coming here … so really, being here and the processes in place really helps students just from even getting here.”

He said that the court really does see the students that need the extra help, and the that is the reason it exists.

Even after meeting the school, some students still come back to check in with the group for extra guidance.

“One young lady had missed over 50 days of school before coming through here,” Ross said. “She’s on track to graduate on time.”