Each month, building principals in Portage Public Schools gather for a sometimes lengthy meeting where we discuss policies, practices and all the things that impact our day-to-day lives. In our most recent meeting, one of our building principals put a topic on the agenda that all of us are dealing with in schools, truancy. The systems that have been in place for years in many of our districts are ill-equipped to deal with the volume and complexity that truancy has grown into post-COVID. Seeking to understand some of the causes that are leading to unimaginable levels of disengagement is a first step in curbing the truancy issue. This is certainly not a comprehensive list but a good start:

  • Lack of relevance: Is there a real-world application to what you are teaching? 
  • Rigidity in school structures: What did we keep from COVID that worked? Or, did we revert to what we knew? 
  • Boredom: What clubs, activities and opportunities are available for your students?
  • Personal challenges: Probably the largest factor post-COVID! Our kids are reeling from trauma, exhaustion and hopelessness. 

We have learned that traditional approaches to addressing truancy are not working. So, as building leaders what are we to do? A recent article published by Harvard Business Publishing highlighted several strategies to address truancy by improving the climate and culture in your building. I could provide you a list of those strategies but we know most of them: intervene early, involve families, mentoring …

What we do know is that relationships matter and if kids feel that there is one adult, one activity or one therapy dog that they can connect with each day then they are more likely to attend school. For example, at Portage West Middle School they identified Friday as their lowest attended day of the week. What did they do? They took one period of their day and implemented a half-hour of clubs and activities that are chosen by the kids. They have clubs for chess, American Sign Language, zumba, nature walks, jam bands and forensics to name a few. Friday is now their highest-attended day! Another way PPS is addressing disengagement is through the addition of eight comfort dogs. These dogs have all been professionally trained as therapy dogs to work with our students. We are finding some of our more disengaged students seek out our four-legged staff members daily. 

I encourage you to keep seeking alternative ways to address your truancy issues and share them with the rest of us!

Orville, Lake Center ElementaryHobbs, Portage Northern High SchoolWinston, Portage West Middle SchoolOlive, Angling Road Elementary

Comfort Dogs, L to R: Orville, Lake Center Elementary; Hobbs, Portage Northern High School; Winston, Portage West Middle School; Olive, Angling Road Elementary

Phoebe, Portage Central High SchoolMazie, Central Elementary SchoolHeath, Portage North Middle SchoolMilton, Portage Central Middle School

Comfort Dogs, L to R: Phoebe, Portage Central High SchoolMazie, Central Elementary School; Heath, Portage North Middle SchoolMilton, Portage Central Middle School

By Dr. Travis Thomsen, Portage North Middle School Principal and MASSP Board of Directors Member