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Rising school truancy rates dominate Montgomery town hall ahead of session

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Questions about how to improve Alabama’s rising truancy rates dominated a town hall Sunday hosted by Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Mongtomery, who said that a new pilot program may be the first step in reducing chronic absenteeism.

Like much of the country, truancy rates in Alabama have risen over the past decade, and accelerated dramatically during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During the 2018-19 school year, 11.2% of Alabama students were chronically absent, which is defined as missing at least 10% of a school year. During the 2021-22 school year, that number increased by nearly 60% to 17.9%.

Alabama has laws that enforce school attendance, with chronic absenteeism constituting a misdemeanor charge, though the law was written to be “liberally construed,” and affords a great deal of discretion in its enforcement.

Natalie Wright, a teacher for Montgomery Public Schools, asked Ensler if there were ways to give existing laws related to truancy “more teeth.”

“We have a problem with truancy, we have kids that are walking around not in school, people are calling the schools telling them,” Wright said. 

“Parents are getting letters, they are going to court, but it seems like the law that is in place needs to be strengthened. This state and all of America feels like if we educate our population, we have a better chance of preventing crime.”

Another attendee that had personal experience with truancy was Najaguan Flynn, a senior at Percy Julian High School in Montgomery. Flynn said that while he had personally seen significant amounts of truancy at his own school, more consistent penalties for parents of chronically absent students might not be the best tool to address the problem’s root causes.

“One of the issues with kids not coming to school is that you have kids that are dealing with mental illness,” Flynn said. 

“You put all of them in this one building, and you don’t have enough employees; guidance counselors are too flooded with trying to get students on track for graduation. I think with truancy, I think that yes, we should crack down on it, but we should also look into why they’re not coming to school.”

Najaguan Flynn (left) speaks to chronic absenteeism at his own high school, Percy Julian High School during a town hall.

Ensler said that addressing the state’s rising truancy rates was a difficult balance between incentivizing school attendance and imposing consequences for parents of chronically absent students, but that a new conflict resolution pilot program that saw approval last year might be the beginning to a solution.

Funded with $200,000 in the 2024 Education Trust Fund budget, the pilot program will allow for MPS to hire specialized counselors who will work with at-risk students, particularly those prone to violence.

A former teacher at Percy Julian, Ensler said that he saw first hand the need for more counselors to help identify and address students’ personal struggles.

Julie Beard, a Montgomery City Council member and former educator at MPS, proposed that many of the staffing shortages at schools could be addressed with legislation similar to Georgia’s 2023 law that allows retired teachers to return to work without compromising their retirement pay.

“I know the state of Georgia pays retired teachers like myself, you could be retired and come back in as a contractor, keep your retirement and not have to freeze it,” Beard said. 

“Those retired educators are the ones that can come back into the school and be truancy officers, be those counselors,” Beard said. “Truancy is a vicious cycle, (and) the bottom line is you’ve got to get your school back under control, and it starts at the top.”

In addition to the pilot program, Ensler also noted a bill he had recently filed that would create a statewide violence prevention office that through grant funding, would help expand conflict resolution programs to schools across the state.

While the bill has no dollar amount attached to it, Ensler told ADN he believed $15 million would be a good starting point for the creation of a statewide violence prevention office, though he would be willing to compromise.

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