State charter school officials want to make sure absent students don’t drop through cracks

The board that oversees charter schools in West Virginia is underscoring the need to track student truancy.

Charter schools receive financial support from the state’s public education system and are given greater operational latitude in exchange for the possibility of losing their right to operate if they fail. So West Virginia’s charter schools are subject to the same attendance policies as the other public schools in the state.

After a student is unexcused for three days, schools are required to make meaningful contact with the student’s parent or guardian to understand the absences and work toward getting attendance back on track. After five unexcused absences, the school has to contact the parents or guardian again and have a meeting to work toward better attendance.

Once a student is up to 10 unexcused absences, charter schools have to notify the attendance director in the county where the student lives. That way, county school officials can organize a home visit or take other action deemed appropriate by the attendance director.

“For brick and mortar charter schools, they should be cooperating with the attendance director or the county board of ed to help keep that student in school,” said James Paul, executive director of the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board, during a regular monthly meeting.

“For the virtual charter schools, it’s a bit of a different process because they are required to follow their own policies for disenrollment for non-attendance. And if a student is disenrolled from a virtual charter school, the virtual school again has to coordinate directly with the student’s county of residence regarding the appropriate next educational placement for that child.”

Paul said he recently reminded — in writing and on the phone — all of the charter schools about the requirements.

“I’ve also spoken to leaders of the virtual charter schools to ensure that they have policies for disenrollment. And even more than just having policies — that they are committed to making sure that no children are falling through the cracks,” Paul said.

“If a student leaves a charter school, we expect a charter school to do all it can to help that child find his place in the next educational option that’s going to work for that student.”

One challenge is that charter schools can be regional in nature, and so communication gaps can exist with county school systems.

“The communication between the charters and the attendance directors is really paramount,” Paul said, adding “this is a process that could stand to improve — the communication on both ends. I will note that communication has gotten better over time. But I’m told by charter leaders that they are not always, not usually even, acknowledged by attendance directors when contacted about a disenrollment.

“I also want to say, to its credit, the West Virginia Department of Education has been supportive on this. They organized a meeting earlier this year to help improve coordination from attendance directors and to get the charter administrators on the same page.” Paul said he understands county attendance directors face a challenging workload. “It’s probably difficult for them to have more on their plates now having charter schools when five years ago they didn’t,” he said.

“I think the state department could continue to support this process simply by continuing to remind attendance directors and all public school staff throughout the state that charter schools are an equal part and participant in our public education system, and charter schools should be treated like any other public school in the state.

“And my guidance to the charter schools now and will continue to be to provide as much notice as possible to the attendance records when the student is at risk of disenrollment, so that, you know, you don’t have to wait until the very end. And even on just the case of truancy, I’d like to get to the point where the charters and counties are communicating as well as possible.”

In response to a MetroNews followup question about the context of the attendance discussion, Paul said it stems from broader concerns about absenteeism in the education system.

“School absenteeism is a problem across the country. I am aware of a recent tragedy in West Virginia, where the public school system lost track of a student. In today’s meeting, I wanted to reiterate charter schools’ responsibilities to comply with compulsory school requirements and PCSB bylaws. And, I wanted to underscore how seriously the PCSB takes these requirements,” he said.

“There has been progress across charter schools, the county boards and the State Department of Education in communicating and coordinating about truant charter school students. But there is room for improvement among everyone involved to reduce absenteeism.”