On Campus

Manitoba investigates why students skip

In Winnipeg, three per cent of the student body had unexplained absences last year

Manitoba is commissioning a study on school truancy amid warnings that poverty and the growing influence of gangs are keeping kids out of school.

The province’s NDP government wants someone to examine every aspect of truancy in Manitoba – from suspension and expulsion to absenteeism and dropping out.

Although the education department is asking for ways to improve school attendance, a copy of the public tender obtained by The Canadian Press warns that “funding should not play a major element in these recommendations.”

Joanna Blais, director of programs and student services with the province’s Education Department, says the province wants to get a handle on how the number of kids not attending school and explore ideas to keep them in school longer without additional funding.

“When students leave school early, they often leave without all of the literacy and numeracy skills that we would hope kids would have,” she said. “It certainly closes doors for them . . . it changes the life pattern when kids leave school early.”

In a 2003 study, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found Canada had the fifth worst truancy rate among 27 developed countries. The study found 26 per cent of 16-year-old students in Canada were absent six or more days per school year.

Canada’s territories had the highest school-absence rates hovering above 60 per cent, while Ontario had the lowest at 44 per cent. In Manitoba, just over half its students were absent six or more days.

The provincial government is particularly interested in why students are skipping school or dropping out entirely, Blais said. She couldn’t say how much the province has budgeted for the study, which will also include a review of current legislation and successful intervention programs across Manitoba.

Experts say the focus on student absenteeism couldn’t have come at a better time. With the floundering economy pushing more people into poverty and gangs becoming increasingly influential, truancy is a growing concern.

In Winnipeg, the province’s largest school board had about three per cent of the student body – more than 1,000 kids – with unexplained absences on their record last school year.

This year, the board set up an attendance hotline and e-mail address for people to report truant kids. It also pays about $150,000 for two full-time truancy officers to track down missing students and persuade them to return to school.

Dushant Persauld, superintendent of schools for the Winnipeg board, says truancy is more of a problem in poor areas where families are constantly on the move, looking for cheaper housing or better jobs. With the economic downturn driving more families to the brink of poverty, Persauld says truancy rates will likely rise.

Kids who aren’t in school are more likely to fall in with the wrong crowd and get into trouble, he added.

“It’s a concern for all of us. We don’t want any kid to miss school for any length of time.”

Bill Rumley has been chasing after kids for 25 years as a truancy officer whose private business is employed by four Manitoba school boards. He says the influence of gangs is becoming more of a problem.

“Sometimes it’s desire to belong (to a gang). Sometimes you are intimidated and pushed into it,” he said. “If it was my child out there, not attending school . . . I would hope someone would come to bat for me and help me. The problem is as big as it gets when it’s your child.”

Parents whose kids miss school in Manitoba risk being taken to court and fined up to $500 for each of their children who are out of school.

In Alberta, an attendance board has the same power as a provincial court and can fine parents up to $1,000 for truancy.

Ontario recently raised its drop-out age to 18 and students who drop out earlier can run the risk of losing their driving privileges. Students and parents can face fines of up to $1,000 while employers can also be penalized for hiring a student during school hours.

– The Canadian Press 


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