Monroe County school board members and staff are concerned about high truancy numbers, but it is a statewide problem as well.

At the Oct. 12 and Oct. 16 Monroe County School Board meetings, board members and staff said that they are concerned about students’ “chronic absenteeism” and truancy. Staff is actively taking steps to address the problem.

“I’m concerned because we’re losing kids” to truancy, said board member Mindy Conn at the Oct. 12 meeting. “Our truancy problems are at all grade levels. It’s not a senior problem, it’s not a junior problem. We have these issues 9 to 12 and 6 to 8. Kids aren’t going. They basically took two years off and now it’s like, ‘Come on back.’ … We definitely need to try and do something because our graduation rates, at the rate we’re going now, are going to tank. And I don’t care per se about the graduation rates. What I care about are these kids. … It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just the cards that the whole world basically has been dealt.”

Mike Henriquez coordinates the alternative education department and works on student attendance and truancy for the school district. He explained that the difference between a child who is “chronically absent” and a child who is “truant” is that a truant child has had 15 unexcused absences within a 90-day period and therefore has been “flagged” for a more formal process. Once that many absences have occurred, the school files a petition with the court and the child goes through a truancy process and meets with a judge about once a month.

“Court is a problem-solving approach,” he said. “We meet with families well ahead of time. If we have to go to court, we still use a problem-solving approach.” 

Amber Acedevo, the district’s coordinator of community relations, provided the truancy numbers for the past few school years to Keys Weekly. For the 2018-19 school year, 12 students were truant for the entire school year. For the 2019-20 school year, nine students were truant for the entire school year. Then came the pandemic, when students were virtually attending classes and “attendance was a challenge to track,” said Acedevo. And yet, 14 students were identified as truant.

Henriquez said most of the truancy cases for the 2021-22 school year are high school students who are carryovers from last year. The number of truant students after nine weeks of this school year is nine. Even though most are carryovers, Acedevo said, “It’s a higher number than we would like to see.”

District staff believe that many high school students got jobs in order to help out their families during the pandemic.

“They’re getting reacclimated to going to school every day,” said Acedevo.

Henriquez said one solution for the students who are working to help families is to offer an On the Job training program and give students credit for the hours worked. 

“We’re not trying to be punitive in any way, shape or form,” he said. “We’re trying to work with you, such as with OJT.”

He also notes that absenteeism is a statewide problem. “Every district is struggling right now to get kids adjusted to a full schedule.”

Superintendent Theresa Axford said in a statement to Keys Weekly, “Monroe County School District has clear parameters for students who are truant.  We are indebted to the Monroe County judges who hear our truancy cases and assist us in managing truancy issues with appropriate consequences. This year, we are faced with more quarantining issues than actual truancy. The problem for these students is missing their work and making it up on a viable schedule. Hopefully, with the dramatic drop in Covid-19 cases, many of these issues will clear up naturally.”

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.