Ashley Taylor, 15, has missed nearly a third of the school year—more than 50 days.
Speaking with her, she’s at first reserved and sits close to her mother on the couch. As she becomes more comfortable she gives short, quick smiles with some responses, but still remains guarded.
Her family’s apartment off Fern Valley Road is tidy for a home of six people. A Bob Marley tapestry hangs on the living room wall. In the afternoon her brother Josiah, 6, comes home from school dressed as President Obama. It’s career day.
Ashley used to enjoy school and these sorts of activities. She happily remembers sixth grade as a “new world.” Seventh and eighth grade were “weird”—but still fun, she says.
Things changed when she entered high school.
“Stuff gets more complicated,” she says.
She started having panic attacks. Her mother, Teresa Torian, says she’d have to “peel” Ashley off the sidewalk just to get her into the school door.
Most of Jefferson County Public Schools’ dropouts tend to have a history of missing school, district officials say. Truancy also costs JCPS money—more than $10 million of state funds last year because of 500,000 unexcused absences among the district’s 100,000 students.
That’s not precisely the case—only a fraction of students are responsible for large portion of truancies, says Sam Rich, JCPS director of pupil personnel. In 2009, nearly 10 percent of students had six or more unexcused absences. Rich expects the numbers to be consistent this year.
The problem worsens next year when Kentucky’s dropout age becomes 18. Jefferson County Public Schools administrators estimate 3,000 students will be added to a watch list of at-risk students who are frequently truant, Rich says.
The list already has 10,000 students.
Students can’t learn when they won’t show up to school. Programs exist to help with truancy and its underlying issues, but they’re often underutilized—or underfunded.
“There’s not the person power to spend with our kids to get underneath what’s really happening,” Jefferson Family Court Judge Joan Byer says.
Because truancy is complicated.
“Truancy is not the actual problem. It’s a symptom of a much larger problem,” Rich says.
Ashley Taylor at her family's home off Fern Valley Road. (Angela Shoemaker/WFPL News)
Over three months, I visit with students who don’t go to school because of language barriers. Others have transportation issues. In some households, parents are too lenient. For one child, issues arose once he was told his stepfather wasn’t a blood relative.
Truant students’ families get phone calls—several of them. Letters are sent, home visits are made in particularly worrisome cases. Jefferson County Public Schools makes about 3,000 home visits each school year, Rich says.
The last resort is court.
A Judge Who Does Little Judging
The district each year files about 1,000 petitions; about half go to the Jefferson County Attorney’s office against the parents of elementary school students.
A quarter of those parents are forced into plea deals—that may include a requirement for parenting classes, substance-abuse treatment, or even forcing parents to finish the GED program. No parent has been arrested, says a spokesman for the county attorney’s office.
The other half of petitions are filed in Family Court against students ages 11 and older. The threat of legal action is often used to nudge families toward resources—therapy or counseling —that students could’ve gotten before courts intervened, Judge Byer says.
Most public education systems, including JCPS, don’t offer the therapy kids often need, she says.
Byer tries to use her powers on the court to address the root of the problems, she says.
She’s a judge, but she does very little judging.
“There’s not going to be any good outcome for me telling a kid to go to school, because they already knew that,” she says.
Outside the family court room in downtown Louisville, children sit with their parents. Sometimes it’s an aunt or grandma. Case by case, students and their guardians are called into a small private room just outside Byer’s chambers.
The first conversation happens in a small, tight space filled by the public defender, child welfare workers, a social worker and a well-dressed prosecutor who sits in front of several case files—files bearing the names of the people waiting outside the room.
The prosecutor says it’s simple: Start going to class and the court case fades away.
But everyone at this table knows the situation is much more complicated.
In the room, the group tries piecing together the puzzle of why this student missed so many days of school. Sometimes talk leads to tears; other times the problems are more obvious.
They share their findings with Byer, who writes an order for the services the child and their family should get. In the past, she’s recommended birth control to sexually active teens—part of her prevention tactics.
“My success is based in part on, ‘Are we getting community contacts for this family? Have we had people surrounding this child and this family to improve their situation?'”
Byer questions some policies at the school level—such as students who are suspended for truancy. Last year, JCPS suspended about 170 students for truancy, skipping school or tardiness.
But Byer says she understands that the system just doesn’t have enough case workers, counselors or therapists. Part of that involves the limited funding to key social service programs such as Seven County Services, which provides mental health support to kids.
In JCPS, there are more than 120 social workers in as many schools. There’s another group of therapists involved in a Seven Counties truancy program that’s beginning to get good results by meeting parents where they’re at—home.
'It's a Fight About Everything in the Morning'
Jesse Vice visits a modest house with a chain-link fence in the Portland neighborhood. She knocks on the door and a small dog barks, letting Rhonda Wright know she’s here.
Wright’s 14-year-old son Rex has missed 34 days of school. He complains of stomach aches and panic attacks. Wright says he has anxiety.
“It’s a fight about everything in the morning. From brushing his teeth, to his hair to putting his clothes on, to putting his socks on. It’s a big fight,” she says.
Vice is one of 30 therapists from Seven Counties dealing with truancy in seven Louisville schools. She works with families for a few hours each week inside their homes to help find solutions to the larger issues that can keep a kid from class.
For example, Rex’s panic attacks get so bad Wright has to hire a babysitter just for grocery trips. Through their talks, Vice learns that Rex’s issues arose after Wright went to prison for a year-and-a-half on forgery charges.
That was the first time she and Rex were apart. He lived with his grandmother. Then, shortly after Wright was released, Rex’s grandma died.
Now, Wright doesn’t have the heart for tough love.
“When I start pushing him that hard he falls out,” she says. “‘You all don’t love me. You hate me. I know you hate me. Why don’t you just get rid of me and solve your problem.’”
When Seven Counties piloted this program in one middle school a few years ago, the results showed it helped truant students get to class. Now, in over 90 percent of cases, social workers are able to get kids back to class and keep them there for the remainder of the year, says David Weathersby, vice president of Child and Family Services for Seven Counties.
And the weekly cost of roughly $3,500 per family—which is mostly covered by Medicaid—could actually save money by preventing kids from being removed from home and placed in state care, he says.
Weathersby says he would like to see this program implemented district-wide. But because JCPS is so large, it needs to be done in “pieces,” he says.
Because it’s covered under Medicaid, every school has access to this level of intensive in-home therapy. However, Seven Counties doesn’t have enough social workers to meet the demand in a timely manner, says agency division director Aaron Montgomery.
Even still, about a quarter of families decline the help when it's offered, he says.
So, willing families and parents are required too—parents like Rhonda, who want the situation to change but don’t know how to do it.
A large part of Vice’s success involves the schools. During the two-hour session, she schedules a meeting with Rhonda and school staff, including the math teacher Rex likes. The approach for this week requires everyone to be on board.
By the time we leave the meeting, Rhonda looks exhausted. She’s cried and her eyes are heavy. She says feels guilty for being away from her kids and doesn’t want to make mistakes that will lead her Rex to feel the way she does:
“I’m no longer happy,” she says. “I just ain’t. I could care less about the outside world at all.”
Ashley in her favorite class at Liberty High School. (Angela Shoemaker/WFPL News)
Finding the right solutions, for some students, means finding the right school or program. And despite some schools having poor reputations, there are others that win praise.
The Right Fit
Inside Liberty High School, in the Newburg neighborhood, the halls are quiet. Principal Iman Talaat walks me into the school’s “Discovery” class. Here, kids are taking a personality quiz. The school will use the test to label the students with colors that correspond to how they think, and teachers will use these to help reach the child.
The school often focuses on social skills. Liberty also has three art teachers, unusual for most public schools. Talaat says her kids need to work with their hands.
This is also where Ashley found her fit.
Her mom did a lot of stressful school-shopping to figure out that Liberty High would work for Ashley. She initially had setbacks, but Talaat was willing to help Ashley figure out a solution to keeping her interested.
They’d find it. Ashley loves fashion design. And Liberty High has a sewing class.
Students here say the smaller class sizes are a major help.
That’s another reason Ashley stays—and comes back.
“They’re willing to help you,” she says. “If you can’t go to one person, there’s always another person who can help you. Even the principal has a walk-in policy where if you’re having a bad day you can just come in and talk to her.”
The school is costly, though. Most alternative schools are. Liberty spends about $22,000 per student; the average cost district-wide is $13,000. But Liberty is nearly half the cost of other alternative schools, where most students have severe and often violent behavior. For example, Breckenridge Metro High School spends $49,000 per student.
Judge Byer and some mental health professionals I speak with say more schools like Liberty are needed in Louisville. But enrollment here is not bursting at the seams—when I visit, Liberty has 50 spots open out of 450. The school enrolls students quarterly and when I ask the students why Liberty is not crowded, they say that’s because kids and parents don’t know about it.
All teachers and staff at Liberty—including Principal Talaat—are assigned at least one student to keep track of during the school year. The former counselor talks to each student we pass in the hall, and asks them how they’re feeling. One girl, who we catch at the front office desk, was just about to check herself out of school. But she’s stopped and Talaat convinces her to stay.
“I was just about to do it too,” the girl says.
“No, you’re not. I’m going to come and check on you,” Talaat says. “Don’t do it.”
The girl smiles and walks back up the stairs to class.