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JANUARY 04, 2017

WINDSOR LOCKS — The public schools have a persistent absenteeism problem, and the administration and Board of Education are determined to do something about it.

Setting up an in-school office for a mental health counselor from Windsor-based Community Health Resources is their latest move.

The challenge is daunting.

The chronic absenteeism rate for the 2015-16 school year was 12.2 percent of the 1,630 students in kindergarten through Grade 12 who were absent 10 percent or more of the year.

“Our target for this year is to reduce it to 8 percent,” declared Superintendent Susan Bell, who proposed the plan for the satellite office.

“We’re having our biggest problem with high-school age students and our youngest students, preschool and kindergarten,” Bell said. “Younger students sometimes you can understand, because if they haven’t had a previous school experience they don’t have a ton of immunity built up so they may be sick often.”

High school is where absenteeism begins to spike again, Bell said.

“You see it starting more in the seventh- and eighth-grade years going up in the high school years,” she said.

And reasons for absenteeism run the gamut.

“I don’t know if there’s a growing number, or if it’s becoming more known,” Bell said, “but many students are living with some sort of trauma.”

Bell said trauma could stem from something happening in the students’ families, or their own personal challenges. These could be post-traumatic stress disorder from certain life events during the formative years, including emotional abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse, she said. It could be a divorce or parents who lose jobs or who need assistance for childcare. A family might need older children to take care of younger children because the parent needs to go to work to keep a job.

“It’s a cycle that’s very difficult when people are trying to make ends meet,” Bell said. “It isn’t unique to Windsor Locks. We’re hearing about it everywhere.”

Some students can’t give reasons for playing hooky, Assistant Superintendent Sharon Cournoyer said.

“In conversations with students and families we found out that some don’t even know why they’re not attending school,” she said. “Having a community resource readily available will help them to identify what is causing them to mss school.”

CHR Senior Vice President Kathy Schiessl said absenteeism issues stem from a combination of students struggling with their own mental health issues as well as the whole family’s struggles. These could include poverty, chaos, multi-generations of trauma related to personal losses, domestic violence, or chronic substance abuse in the family, Schiessl said.

“There is a correlation between students who are absent more than 10 percent of the year and their not performing at expected levels on achievement measures,” Bell said.

Absenteeism is a major cause for district staff, Assistant Superintendent Sharon Cournoyer said.

“That’s something we pay close attention to,” Cournoyer said. “If we don’t have students in school we can’t educate them to the level they need to be at.”

In-school office being pursued

There may be some relief in January if the Board of Education’s plans to establish an in-school CHR office proceed as expected.

Earlier this month, the board approved the signing of a memorandum of understanding with CHR which allows it to apply for a license to establish the satellite office, which it would operate at no charge to the district.

CHR, which serves about 8,000 families in communities in about half the state, is no stranger to Windsor Locks families. The agency currently works with about 300 families at its offices in Enfield and Bloomfield. CHR also provides programs in town on substance abuse prevention in an affiliation with the nonprofit New Directions.

“We would like to ensure that our students and their families have an easier way to access that care, especially those who may need to book appointments in the Enfield or Bloomfield office,” Bell said. “Currently, we make referrals, but the families have to take the next step and make the phone call, and we really have no follow-up when we make a referral. We don’t know if family will follow up. They maybe go or not go if it’s too hard go get there. This way we’re taking those extra steps out of the equation.”

CHR’s approach, Schiessl said, will be “looking at the issues that the whole family is facing and trying to link them with services to assist them, services CHR provides, coordination with the town youth services bureau, as well as other organizations that are more local in the community.”

CHR intends to start off with one or two counselors.

“We have the ability to work with students around their schedules, maybe in-school hours or after-school hours,” Bell said. “We recognize that it’s challenging for folks to make the time to get the mental health support they need, but oftentimes that support can tip the scales for students who are avoiding school or having trouble getting to school because there are other things going on in their lives.”

As for costs, CHR bills all health insurers and takes clients on state assistance as well.

The next step is for board staff to meet with CHR to identify a site or sites within the schools that the agency can specify in its license application.

“It will be either in one school or they may be able to rotate within the schools if we can find other sites,” Cournoyer said. “They’re very willing to do whatever they need to do so that families have access to their services.”

As for a tentative schedule, Bell said she hopes that the CHR satellite office is up and running by the end of January.

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