LEWISTON — Butch Pratt opens the white screen door and holds it open with his hip, knocking a few times at the door of a gray two-story apartment building. Children’s voices on the second floor fall silent. A curtain flicks.

Pratt, the Lewiston school district’s truancy officer of 14 years, knocks again on the door, then on the adjacent window. Nothing.

With a patience born of long familiarity with unanswered knocks, he jots a short note on the back of his business card – “Please call me” – and wedges it into the nearby window frame.

On his way out, he pauses and peers up at the second-floor window. He’s been here before, for three girls who regularly skip school. But today he’s here for their little brother, who just started middle school. He was really good about going to school last year.

“This year, it’s like he fell off the face of the Earth,” Pratt says, driving away. He’s trying to catch the boy before he falls any farther.

Having a truant officer knocking on doors is just one of the ways that school districts around Maine are tackling the stubborn issue of truancy. Some districts try to get those missing students back to school by assigning district leaders to focus on absenteeism, partnering with outside consultants or with local service agencies.

One lawmaker, Rep. Karen Gerrish, R-Lebanon, introduced a bill this legislative session that would have allowed the state to suspend the driver’s licenses of truant older students, something 29 other states already do. It failed in committee. But other states have passed even bigger penalties: Under a law passed in 2015, some Michigan families have lost welfare benefits because their children were truant.

Experts call the issue critical. When younger students miss school, they are statistically less likely to keep up and are at high risk for dropping out later. Older students can wind up without a high school diploma, a basic requirement for most jobs.

The exact scope of the problem statewide is hard to pinpoint. For years, the state has been collecting truancy data from the districts and submitting an annual report to the Legislature, but the data aren’t considered reliable because of reporting errors, said Gayle Erdheim, a new Maine Department of Education coordinator for truancy, dropouts, homeless, and alternative education.

INCONSISTENT TRACKING OF TRUANCY

Truancy is legally defined in Maine as seven consecutive unexcused absences or 10 total unexcused absences for a seventh-grader or older student. For younger students, it’s five consecutive unexcused absences, or seven total.

The statewide report for 2015-16 showed 9,410 truancy “events,” almost three times the 3,438 events reported in 2014-15.

“It is unlikely that these figures signal a true increase in truancy levels over the period and more likely that they demonstrate the success of recent efforts on the part of the Department of Education to improve the consistency of reporting across school districts,” Erdheim wrote in the report. Despite those efforts, the underlying data are still not reliable, she said. Because the state counts truancy “incidents” and not total days absent, it can lead to bad data.

A typical reporting error, she said, is when truant students return to school and then have additional unexcused absences. Some schools count each additional day as another “event,” while others do not. A check by the Portland Press Herald of some districts with high truancy rates found they were reporting all absences, not just unexcused absences, inflating the data.

Gerrish, an elementary school teacher, said she proposed the legislation after hearing about two high school sophomores who had missed more than 400 days each, ever since starting a pattern of unexcused absences in elementary school. They were just two of 22 chronically truant students in the district.

“As an educator, I understand the family dynamic, but for me as a teacher, me as a mom? I realize these kids are killing their future,” Gerrish said. “It used to be, like in the mid-1980s, you could just have a high school diploma, go into manufacturing and have a pretty decent life. Today it’s not like that.

“These kids, they’re not ever going to be in a position to make a livable wage. It’s hard as a teacher to watch them throw their futures away.”

IMPACT OF CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM

Numerous studies have found that chronic absenteeism, whether excused or unexcused, is a major indicator of future academic success, according to Attendance Matters, a national nonprofit. In Maine, the local Attendance Matters affiliate is Count Me In, which has partnered with more than 60 schools and seen a 27 percent decrease in chronic absenteeism.

In recent years, there has been a push to focus energy on poor attendance in kindergarten and first grade, to set up healthy habits and provide assistance early to students in need. It also has an academic impact even in kindergarten. Chronically absent children are less likely to be reading at grade level by the end of third grade, a common benchmark used to anticipate future academic success. By sixth grade, being chronically absent is an indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

Last year, the federal government released its first report on nationwide chronic absenteeism , tracking students absent 15 or more days in a year for any reason. It found that over 6 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2013-14, or 14 percent of the student population.

Maine law requires a series of steps to deal with truancy, starting with conversations with the student and family, working up to formal letters from superintendents and possible referral to state child protective services or the district attorney, with an ultimate penalty of fining the parents.

Pratt doesn’t think going the legal route even works.

“We’ve had eight families maybe, over the years” that were summonsed to court, he said. “It’s not going to solve anything. The parents may get fined. But it’s not going to get that kid into school.”

A MOTHER RUNS OUT OF OPTIONS

Lewiston parent Maria Ouellette, meeting with Pratt for the sixth time this year, says she’s tried everything to get her daughter Ashley, 15, to go to school. Ashley missed 140 days in the school year. The typical school year is at least 175 days.

“It first started last year,” said Ouellette, sitting in her living room with Pratt. Ashley is upstairs in her room but refuses to come out to talk to Pratt. Ouellette says Ashley has learning and emotional needs and has had aides and personalized education plans at school, and therapy outside of school. But she always went to school. Now a 10th-grader, she simply stopped going.

Ouellette said she first tried bribing Ashley with treats, then tried taking away her privileges, then removing her belongings from her room. Ashley’s problems have gotten more serious lately, inviting friends over to the house during the day, using drugs and, a few months earlier, getting arrested on a theft charge. She was given community service, but she didn’t show up to that either, her mother said.

“I’ve called the cops, I’ve called DHHS,” she said, but peer support, a case manager and a nurse practitioner have all been tried and failed. Ouellette said she’s at the point where she is hoping the court sentences her daughter to juvenile hall for the theft charge “so she can go to school there.”

“I don’t wish this on anybody,” said Ouellette, 42. She cares for her adult autistic son at home, and she can’t physically force Ashley to do anything: “She’s bigger than me. She’s 160 pounds to my 103.”

These days, Ouellette worries about her youngest daughter, Cheyenne, a 13-year-old seventh-grader who loves school.

“I worry about her seeing what Ashley is doing,” Ouellette said. “She’s just hell on wheels sometimes.”

SEEING STUDENTS OUTSIDE CLASSROOM

Chad Strout, who was a truancy officer at Cony High School in Augusta, said the home visits were key to him helping students.

“I visited with families and sat at their kitchen tables or on the sofa and had an honest discussion about what was going on,” said Strout, who is now assistant principal at a New Hampshire high school.

“To see the kids outside the classroom, I thought, now I get it. Now I see why they aren’t going to school. They have no resources at home. We’re asking them, ‘Why aren’t you engaged in this lesson?’ when they don’t have any food in the house or blankets on the beds.”

Pratt agrees that meeting with the parents is important.

“We start with automatic calls, and it lets folks know we are watching,” said Pratt, who is also the district’s transportation manager. “I like to go face to face and talk to them at the house.”

It’s almost always a social service issue of some sort, he said. Once he knows what’s going on, he can refer families to help, or find a way to get them help. “We’re trying to break that cycle,” he said. Over the years, the district has made a lot of progress, he said. When he started, dealing with truancy took up about 80 percent of his time, and about 20 percent was on transportation. Now it’s the reverse.

Erdheim said many schools aren’t following the rules that already exist. She reviewed the data on 1,305 serially truant students and found that schools reported scheduling official parent meetings less than 15 percent of the time – something that should have happened in each case. Only 2 percent of cases were referred to law enforcement, another option in extreme cases.

“Schools don’t seem to be fully utilizing the statutory tools that are currently available,” Erdheim said. “So I clearly have some work to do!”

School officials looking for help can go to the Maine Principals’ Association, which has a web page where school officials post advice, sample letters and stories about what has worked – or hasn’t – in their own district.

“While in Augusta, I went to the home and either helped get them out of the house and/or had a meeting right in the home and then gave them a ride to school. Parents loved this,” read a post from Bonny Eagle High School. After that, a second letter goes out, then a meeting with the family. If, after all that, “the student misses more school, I then write a report and send it to the (district attorney) for a court hearing. I have done this about 30 times in my career.”

Bucksport links absences to losing class credit: “Our policy is that if a student (has) eight unexcused absences in a semester course or 16 in a year-long course, they will not receive credit for the course,” read the post. “I send the letters out once they have missed four and then update it as they get closer to the limit. This will usually get the attention of the parents. If a student hits the mark, they will be notified and then have a right to appeal. The issue we run into is the enabling and getting frequent call-ins from parents who will excuse a lot of absences.”

REASONS OTHER THAN DISINTEREST

The first step in helping students is figuring out why they are skipping school. It’s usually not because they just don’t feel like going. Experts say there is almost always an underlying social services issue.

“Sometimes it’s an issue with bullying. Sometimes it’s social anxiety. Sometimes it’s a bad experience with teachers. Sometimes it’s a health or family issue,” Erdheim said. “There are a million different reasons kids are out of school, but usually it’s not that they don’t like math.”

That’s one reason why Maine tracks truancy, which is defined as being absent without an excuse, she said.

“There may be legitimate reasons to be out,” she said. “From a classroom point of view, what you care about is whether a kid is there or not. Educationally, it’s the cumulative absences that matter, whether excused or not.”

Ken Kunin, the superintendent in South Portland, said his district has seen a lot of success by taking each case individually and working directly with the student and parents.

“What we’re trying to learn is, ‘What’s this child’s experience? What’s making it hard for them to come to school?’ ” Kunin said.

“I’ve been in education for a long time,” he said. “All parents want the best for their children. We just need to continue working with parents.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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