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posted: 9/30/2011 5:00 AM

Truancy hits another new high in Kane County schools

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Kane County saw truancy at local schools hit a 10-year high during the 2009-10 school year. The latest numbers show 2010-11 was even worse. And Kane County's leading truancy officials said the numbers will almost surely continue to climb because there simply is no money to prevent it.

The 2010-11 school year saw 1,956 students reported for truancy to the Kane County Regional Office of Education. That's 183 more truancy cases than the preceding year, an increase that can't be attributed solely to population growth, said Pat Dal Santo, director of alternative programs for the ROE.

"It's the most amount of kids with many, many issues causing their truancy that I've ever seen," Dal Santo said. "These aren't simple cases anymore. The fact that the complexity of truancy is so great in this time makes it even harder for us to address it."

Illinois law requires students to begin school by age 7 and attend school every school day until age 17, when they can legally drop out if they choose. A student between ages 7 and 17 is considered truant if absent from school without a valid excuse. Eighteen or more days of absence without a valid excuse is considered chronic truancy.

The new complexity of truancy is tied to the poor economy, Dal Santo said. Older siblings stay home to watch a younger brother or sister so mom and/or dad can look for a job. More families are also homeless than in years past, making it nearly impossible for some students to even get to school. There were 1,702 homeless students in the 2010-11 school year, a 26 percent increase from the previous school year when the numbers also jumped by nearly 27 percent.

"I don't think it'll get better until the economy gets better and the state figures out its budget deficits," Dal Santo said. "In the meantime, what's going to happen is a lot of these truant students will become dropouts. And those kids will become minimum wage workers and not pay taxes, which only compounds the problem with state funding."

To get an idea of how bad funding to address truancy is, Dal Santo said just two weeks ago her department received the last of the money the state owed it for 2010. She hasn't received a dime from the state toward her 2011 budget. Dal Santo is relying on local school districts to fund her department with the promise she'll pay them back once the state pays her.

"It's a major issue," Dal Santo said. "If you don't pay your vendors, that doesn't work out too well. At some point, if we don't get the funds from the state, we would have to start cutting services."

That's already happened. One of the main reasons truancy numbers are skyrocketing is because funding for truancy prevention is gone. Truancy officers now only get involved once a student already has a lengthy history of not showing up for school. By then, the problem is deeply rooted, Dal Santo said. When that happens, Dal Santo's office doesn't have the manpower to help get kids back in school to the degree she'd like. Every truancy officer Dal Santo has takes on about 120 truants; a caseload of 100 truants is considered high, she said. And sometimes it's the small things that motivate a student to show up at school, she added.

"The one thing that comes through in the research is kids will go to school if they feel there is an adult in that building who cares about them," Dal Santo said. "That's not to say our teachers don't care. But kids need that extra mile from teachers so students know they care."

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