Missing school impacts students; Lafayette Public Schools is tackling the problem
There's a giant whiteboard along one wall in Jerome Robinson's new office. Written on it are the names of all 44 schools in the Lafayette Parish School System. An orange X next to a name means he's visited that school in his three and a half weeks on the job.
"I have about 10 schools left," he said.
Robinson, 50, is the new director of child welfare and attendance for LPSS after more than 20 years as an educator in the district he grew up in, St. Landry Parish.
He's spent the last few weeks visiting schools and meeting administrators, going to five on Wednesday and marking new X's on his whiteboard.
It's important to him to introduce himself and let them know the department is there to help. A former principal himself, that's what he would want, he said.
"It's important to me to meet every last administrator, let them ask questions, and let them know the department is ready and available," he said. "Everybody wants the best for the students. We all have the same goal."
What is child welfare and attendance?
Robinson works with three hearing officers and four truancy officers, two of whom were added this year, in the department of child welfare and attendance. Their office is responsible for designing and implementing effective interventions in attendance, discipline and dropout prevention.
They deal with zoning issues like transfer requests from within and outside the parish, discipline issues and hearings, and efforts to curb truancy.
The three hearing officers work closely with social workers to deal with discipline-related issues, which could result in suspensions and expulsions. Robinson sees these as a last resort.
"We try to find innovative, research-based ways to curb behavior issues," Robinson said.
One of those is Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), he said. The program rewards positive behavior and implements strategies that focus on prevention rather than punishment.
The strategies are part of reaching that goal of keeping kids in schools, like truancy diversion committees at schools that track students who are habitually tardy or absent and connect with their parents.
"Officers here work with those teams," Robinson said. "It's a hands-on, communicative process."
'We're all just trying to find ways to keep kids in school'
If a child has five unexcused absences in a semester they are truant, but the teams reach out to guardians after three.
"Diversion teams get together, meet with parents, find out what's going on that's keeping kids from coming to school and work with those parents," Robinson said. "We're all just trying to find ways to keep kids in school."
Truancy has long been an issue in schools across the country, and education leaders have said the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened it and prompted a more intense focus on in-person attendance.
"For most cases, if a child is not in school, it's hard to reach them," Robinson said.
State and district educational leaders are focusing on efforts to improve attendance and engagement after COVID-related effects, such as quarantining and virtual and hybrid learning.
Student scores on state standardized tests showed low attendance and engagement had an academic impact last year, as the rate of students scoring mastery or above was 15% higher for those who were in-person for the entirety of the year versus those who were virtual for the entire year, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.
Students who were virtual for the entire year also had an 11% greater rate of unsatisfactory scores than those in-person for the entire year.
"The data is clear that in-person instruction is far more beneficial than virtual learning options for the majority of students," State Superintendent Cade Brumley said.
The Lafayette Parish School System had a 93.9% attendance rate in 2019-20 before Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That's slightly above the state rate of 93.6% but below Lafayette's 2018-19 attendance rate of 94.3%, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Education.
In 2019-20, Lafayette attendance rates were higher among younger students, with a 94.6% rate for elementary schools, 94.3% for middle schools and 92.8% for high schools.
'I see this job as an assignment'
Robinson and his office want to see that improve. He came from a big family of five boys in St. Landry Parish and a long line of educators. His parents and grandparents were all in education.
"Education has always been in me," he said. "Our jobs are really tough jobs. I see this job as an assignment, and I'm thankful."
His passion for helping students and families is fueled by his strong Christian faith.
"I think we are placed on this Earth to help one another," Robinson said. "If I can't help them I can direct them to where they can get help.
"Right here what I'm doing, I truly believe I'm where I'm supposed to be."
Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.