Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Tall Oaks ranks fifth in county for habitual truancy

Almost a fifth of students missed at least 20 percent of school in 2006-2007 school year

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The Maryland State Department of Education cites four alternative or vocational schools among the county’s top six schools with the highest habitual truancy rates, including Bowie’s Tall Oaks Vocational High School at No. 5 overall.

Tall Oak’s habitual truancy rate is 19.87 percent, meaning that almost a fifth of students missed at least 20 percent of school during the 2006-2007 school year.

Principal Larry McRae acknowledges the school needs to raise its regular attendance rate, which was 88.6 percent in the 2006-2007 school year, but said it is difficult to compare Tall Oaks with regular high schools since students come to the school because of previous problems.

‘‘Is the truancy rate acceptable? No. But that’s why the kids are there so we can help them with their problems,” said Prince George’s County Schools spokesman John White.

The alternative education model at Tall Oaks is meant for students who may have a variety of problems in the traditional school setting — including chronic absenteeism, disruptive behavior, poor grades or incarceration.

Technical courses offered include automotive technology, carpentry and computer applications.

In the same year Prince George’s County high schools had an average daily attendance rate of 91.5 percent. Daily attendance rates reflect the percentage of students present in school for at least half the day.

To address the habitual truants’ absences, McRae said the school assigns all students to case workers who stay in close contact with their families.

‘‘Typically when there is an attendance issue and the kid does not come to school, the parent is notified usually by 12 p.m. [that day],” he said.

In the past to help individual students, McRae said staff have gone beyond their roles as educators to assume a more parental role to aid students.

‘‘We’ve had to have kids picked up from the Metro or whatever because they were close to graduation but were missing days,” McRae said.

To curb truancy statewide, legislators introduced a law in October that denies a learner’s permit to students younger than 16 who have more than 10 unexcused absences during the prior school semester.

With approximately 170 students, it’s easier to monitor students at Tall Oaks than at other larger high schools but their previous bad habits, including truancy, can be tough to break, McRae said.

McRae and teachers try to stay mindful of the individual challenges and situations each of their students face while working with them.

As the school system works to improve students’ success at Tall Oaks they plan to modernize the facilities. PGCPS’ Capital Improvement Program for 2009-2014 lists Tall Oaks for major renovations, which could include modernization of the current building or a completely new technology center to be built on the same site. Renovation plans are still being discussed, though White said Tall Oaks would be rebuilt to become a state of the art building for technology education.

McRae said improvements in the facilities could be a motivating factor for students to succeed.

‘‘Obviously a 1957 plant could use some upgrades,” said McRae of the year the facility was built. ‘‘When they upgrade facilities here as well as any other high school, then [the students] are more interested in learning.”

Already planners have visited one of the premier technology facilities in the world in Copenhagen, Denmark to learn about their program, White said.

‘‘The goal is to move away from this vocational model,” he said. ‘‘Most people think of vocational as the kids who will not go to college. We’re moving to the students passing the [High School Assessment tests], graduating college-ready and at the same time acquiring a skill such as Microsoft certification.”

The estimated cost to upgrade both Tall Oaks and Croom Vocational High School in Upper Marlboro is $34 million.

‘‘The more options we offer for students, the more students can pursue different career paths,” said school board vice chairman Ron Watson. ‘‘Students should know they don’t have to follow some prescribed routine. ... They shouldn’t be pigeonholed.”

E-mail Andrea Noble at anoble@gazette.net.