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RISD officials talk attendance, help for homeless students

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Roswell Independent School District staff members brainstorm and learn about the school’s plan for combating truancy and encouraging student attendance. (Alison Penn Photo)

Roswell Independent School District (RISD) officials recently discussed attendance for the 40th day of school and assistance the federal programs department is providing to students.

Jennifer Cole, director of federal programs, said everything is impacted by the attendance on count-days (days 40, 80, 120 and the last day of school) including state funding, graduation rates, teacher evaluations and school grades.

After students have 10 consecutive days of non-verified absences, Cole explained the district is required by the New Mexico Public Education Department to drop those students — and so far 11 elementary students, 21 middle school students and 47 high school students have been dropped. From sixth grade to 12th, Cole there have been 178 kids with five days of absences.

Earlier on Wednesday, Cole said the principals attended a meeting to talk about the process when the school district intervenes for truancy. The process of involving the attendance officer, and the potential for a CYFD (Children, Youth & Families Department) investigation for each case were covered.

“Ultimately, when they’re not in school and they don’t graduate there is longer negative consequence for the kid, for the family, for the community,” Jennifer Cole said. “And so, how can we come together as a community and as legislators and lawmakers and courts and do what we can do keep them in school?”

RISD Superintendent Dr. Ann Lynn McIlroy said she was “really concerned” and “shocked” about the 47 high school students. In addition, she said nearly 70 kids disappeared off the books and the district is going to have find out where the kids are — and the root cause of why they are not coming to school.

“I just have to say, parents, the school calendar is not merely a suggestion,” McIlroy said. “We cannot do our job with your kids and help change the world for your kids if you don’t get them to school. That’s your responsibility. We can’t do that for you and it starts in kindergarten. Every day of kindergarten matters. Every day of first grade matters. All the way to 12th grade, every single day matters.”

Helen Cheromiah, RISD’s attendance officer, and Veronica Barraza, RISD homeless liaison, said their work is intertwined in offering resources to local students. Cole said her department, with includes the work of Cheromiah and Barraza, provides services for 70 homeless students, 21 migrants, 22 foster students — and there are certainly more in the school district.

“There’s resources in the district,” Barraza said as a message to students and families. “There’s resources and all they have to do is ask.”

Cheromiah said this is her first year as attendance officer. She said attendance policies needed to be redone, and a handbook was created to aid with some of the attendance issues the district is facing. Some of the immediate truancy issues Cheromiah has seen at RISD include parents or guardians calling in for kids using illness as an excuse and students from all grade levels are not showing up at school.

“Kids’ attendance patterns have been proven, when they start bad in kindergarten and first grade, they continue to be bad and they reduce our graduation rates,” Cheromiah said. “They end up dropping out by (age) 15 or 16. They end up not being able to read by third grade. They are not there for the classroom instruction and we can’t educate them if they are not there. It ends up affecting a lot of things besides just numbers. It ends up affecting them in the long run and we have to go backwards.”

To combat truancy, Cheormiah said the district is attempting to make personal contacts with and offer support to parents and guardians. After the schools’ contact efforts have been exhausted, Cheromiah then steps in and will reach out to families.

Cheromiah said state law requires kids from age five to age 18 be in an educational program and the penalty is a petty misdemeanor. Parents can face fines and/or jail time and community service for being in violation of the law.

Cheromiah retired from the Roswell Police Department and nine of her 20 years were spent as a school resource officer. Being known in the community as a former officer, Cheromiah said makes it somewhat easier for her to make calls to families because she has developed some relationships and contacts with families during her time as a police officer.

“Every part of the time that they’re in school is a learning opportunity and if the kids aren’t there, they are missing those opportunities,” Cheromiah said.

Cheromiah said there is a definite homeless population in Roswell. Cheromiah said the district doesn’t have many kids sleeping in tents or parks, but does have students residing in shelters or hotels — in some cases ending up in Roswell after fleeing hurricanes.

Going further in the definition, Barraza said for students to be determined as homeless, the situation has to be a hardship for a family and not a personal choice.

She said some instances of homelessness can happen after domestic violence situations or divorces.

Cheromiah and Barraza said they will perform home visits to verify if a family is homeless. Barraza said once homeless students and their families are identified that the district will help with backpacks, supplies, uniforms and even transportation to help them find stability. From places to shower to clean clothes, donations and federal money, Cheromiah and Barraza said the purpose of the resources is to help students be more successful.

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.