One of the things I enjoy most about our work as part of the Child & Youth Readiness Cabinet is that we are in the unique position to identify and, where possible, adjust state policies that simply aren’t working for children and families. One such opportunity has presented itself based on our work with the Springfield Public Schools (SPS).
Increasing student attendance is a high priority for SPS. They have a robust system for tracking and following up with students and their families after every absence. Due to this vigilance, SPS increased attendance rates by more than two percentage points in four years (from 89.5% in 2008 to 91.8% in 2012). But, by their own admission, they still have a distance to go to reach their goal of 95% attendance by 2017.
SPS has identified the Department of Transitional Assistance’s (DTA) Learnfare program as an opportunity for bolstering their significant progress in this area. Unfortunately, the programs’ requirements do not align with the district’s attendance policies.
Learnfare is a requirement for certain families on Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) – that is, cash assistance for families that meet certain income eligibility requirements – to send their children (ages 6 through 13) to school. In order to comply with Learnfare rules, children must not have more than eight unexcused absences per academic quarter. If a student exceeds this number of absences, a sanction process is triggered, and families may lose a portion of their cash benefit until the issue is resolved.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that eight absences per quarter totals more than six missed weeks of school per year. That is a lot of missed school. Even though this program affects a very small number of families, school districts need every tool available to them to increase their attendance rates.
So we at the Cabinet brought the issue directly to the Commissioner of DTA, Dan Curley. He and his team – with Yasmin Otero, the DTA Liaison to the Readiness Cabinet spearheading the effort – developed a creative response, the Learnfare Intervention Model Pilot, that they are going to roll out in January.
This pilot will begin in the communities where the Cabinet is already engaged. These school districts will be asked to report to DTA as soon as a child on TAFDC has accrued four unexcused absences in a quarter. A DTA case manager will then reach out to the child’s family to help them identify and resolve any impediments to school attendance and will connect that family to appropriate agencies (both state and community-based) for the specific services they may need.
Among the many benefits of this pilot program, it allows us to place our time and resources on supporting students and their families and not, fundamentally, on a punitive strategy for increasing student attendance. Our goal is to ensure that our children and families have access to the services and supports they need so that children can come to school healthy and ready to learn. This pilot is an important step in that direction.