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Federal Way High School leads fight against truancy

Principal Lisa Griebel and her team, including attendance secretary Paris Shelby, assistant principal Jerry Warren and Becca Counselor Graciela Basilio, worked a lot with school role models — including minority students, ROTC cadets and athletes — to showcase the positives of showing up to class. - Kyra Low/The Mirror
Principal Lisa Griebel and her team, including attendance secretary Paris Shelby, assistant principal Jerry Warren and Becca Counselor Graciela Basilio, worked a lot with school role models — including minority students, ROTC cadets and athletes — to showcase the positives of showing up to class.
— image credit: Kyra Low/The Mirror

At Federal Way High School, attendance is not optional.

This may seem like a no-brainer. However, the school has worked long and hard in the past year to enforce that idea in students' heads.

The students, like many of their peers elsewhere, had fallen into the thinking that attending classes was less important than socializing. Students had become quite devious in getting around the rules, such as erasing voice messages about an absence from school before their parents got home, Principal Lisa Griebel said.

With Jack in the Box, Albertson's and apartments nearby, leaving Federal Way High School for a few hours was a common occurrence. Still, other students missed school by taking on adult responsibilities, including jobs, child care and babysitting.

At the beginning of the school year, a team at FWHS sat down and figured out some ways to combat the mounting truancies.

First up was locking the parking lot during school hours, preventing students from driving off. The school resource officer began patrolling outside, preventing drive-by pickups of students.

The team came up with a three-tiered response for students, which included changing the attitudes of both students and staff, who had become relaxed about an attendance policy that had no consequences.

Consequences were now in spades for the infraction — consequences that went all the way up to court or suspension.

Team effort

Principal Lisa Griebel and her team, including attendance secretary Paris Shelby, assistant principal Jerry Warren and Becca Counselor Graciela Basilio, worked a lot with school role models — including minority students, ROTC cadets and athletes — to showcase the positives of showing up to class.

School assemblies are no longer just pep rallies, but now are monthly recognitions for the five A's: Athletic, attendance, activities, academics and art.

"Ultimately if it doesn't work though, then the team kicks in," Griebel said.

However, with the second and third steps, the gloves come off. Parents are phoned automatically each time their student is absent. The teacher calls when the absences become frequent, and students and parents are brought in for a meeting, first with the teachers, and if the truancy continues, with school administrators.

Language barrier

Basilio, who is fluent in Spanish, is able to communicate to the large number of Hispanic parents who were often unaware of the truancy situation due to the language barrier. Many parents are now so used to Basilio explaining and finding out what is going on that they will immediately call the school back and just ask for Basilio, who will then explain the situation.

"Kids were using the language barrier to get away with it," Griebel said. "Graciela has really helped with that."

The laws

In addition to notifying parents, students with problematic absences are sent to a workshop and must sign a contract. At the workshop, both the students and the parents are reminded of the law that states that students attend school.

This law, known as the Becca Law, was enacted in the mid-1990s after 13-year-old Becca Hedman, a runaway who worked the streets as a prostitute and was murdered by one of her clients. Her father, Dennis Hedman, began working to change Washington state's juvenile laws. Part of the law states that schools must file a truancy petition with juvenile court when a child has more than five unexcused absences in a month, or more than 10 in a year.

If the detentions, Saturday schools, suspensions and intervention meetings don't work, then the school files a petition, according to the Becca Truancy Law, which brings the case to court. So far this year, Griebel said the school has filed 97 petitions.

One of the biggest hurdles is that no matter how much they change the students' mentality, with 20 percent mobility and incoming freshmen each year, there is a constant stream of new students who still don't understand that attendance isn't optional, Griebel said.

Progress

But they are making progress. Already, early numbers back from freshman monitoring reports saw FWHS with the highest increase in student attendance. Griebel and her team received the 2009 Innovator Award Winner from Daniel Satterberg and the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office a few weeks ago for their work as the best program for preventing truancy. Griebel was nominated by Nancy Saunders, Federal Way Public School Becca coordinator.

Then there is the case of this year's basketball state playoffs. One of the games occurred during the school day. Students needed a note to legally leave the campus to attend the game.

"We had 300 kids lined up in the hallways," Griebel said. "It was pandemonium for off-campus passes. We were writing a lot of notes."

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