School attendance officers look to be more effective

An increase in school attendance officers by 25 has bumped the complement from six to 31 with 23 officers earmarked for New Providence, and two officers for Grand Bahama. As they hit the ground with the opening of the public school year, Anzlo Strachan, chief attendance officer, said with the significant increase in staff, his department can be more effective, but will still have to be more strategic to get children who stopped going to school in the pandemic, to return to the classroom.

“The amount of people we have will definitely be enough. We went from six to over 30. It’s a significant increase in staff and the most that has ever been in the department. We have never had this number. The most we had at a high point was, like, 12,” said Strachan.

The 25 individuals were selected from a current complement of trained COVID officers by a review committee in the Ministry of Education and Technical and Vocational Training, and also includes new applicants.

The new school attendance officers had a three-day training to prepare them for their new roles.

Strachan said he and his department have a “big task” ahead of them to get the thousands of students who have not been attending school to return.

During the initial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, many children stopped attending school virtually and did not return to school when face-to-face instruction resumed.

Strachan does not have a finite number on the children who have dropped out of school. Education officials have said the number of children who have not returned to school is in the thousands.

“I do have a very big task ahead of me,” said Strachan. It will be a task to get them in school because they did not show up for various reasons – system not working, economics, which meant students went out to work, everyone wasn’t going on the line to beg. As a result of that, we believe that some students got apathetic towards education and lost focus because they had been out so long.”

Criteria that place a child(ren) on a school attendance officer’s radar include absence of three or more days over a two-week period without a note or any type of contact from a parent or guardian; absence of once a week over a four-week period; or if they see a pattern begin to develop.

The school attendance officers won’t just be in the schools, figuring out who wasn’t there, but will be hitting the streets in communities.

“Most parents want their children educated, but life and circumstances make it seem like they don’t care – but they do,” said the chief school attendance officer. “They did a survey on this last year which showed over 95 percent of parents really care and want the best for their kids.”

School attendance officers liaise with people in the community and have to deal with conflict. While the new officers had three days of basic training to get them up and running ahead of public schools reopening today, Strachan said the plan moving forward will be to periodically meet to ensure the officers continue to do everything according to protocols that have been set.

The chief school attendance officer said he would like to see the new hires placed in the primary school to try to nip challenges in the bud at the earliest level. He said it is still up for debate.

New Providence has over 50 public schools.

Strachan, an attendance officer of over two and a half decades, said poor attendance has always been a challenge and is nothing new.

“It’s just that COVID revealed a lot of the cracks, because children who didn’t come to school just didn’t come – and it was for a variety of reasons.”

As his new officers hit the streets, Strachan encourages them to have empathy for people.

Minister of Education and Technical and Vocational Training Glenys Hanna-Martin has said education is a human right for children, during a training seminar for the people who will serve as attendance officers.

“Attending school is the process by which they acquire skills to allow them to navigate a complex world and help them realize their full potential as human beings and hopefully experience happiness in their lives as they are able to sustain a livelihood.

“Further, it is a legal obligation under the Education Act that children of compulsory age [five to 16] attend school. Parents have no discretion to cause these children not to attend school. Children must attend school and parents must ensure their children attend; and under the Education Act, the minister has a duty to ensure that parents comply.”

The education minister said they understand that oftentimes, non-attendance signals some deeper malady either on or off campus, and that it must be their collective intervention to support parents and our students where necessary to allow for smooth and unhindered attendance of children at school, while simultaneously addressing underlying issues.

In that regard, Hanna-Martin said their social safety net supports agencies such as the Department of Social Services and Special Services, including guidance counseling. And that they will collaborate to bring the necessary support.

“Where we identify children who are at or near school-leaving age, and in those circumstances, it may not be deemed pragmatic for those young people to re-enter the school classroom – I urge those students and their parents to avail themselves of the opportunity for continuing education including the newly launched Smart Start Programme by BTVI offered free of charge,” said the education minister.

She said children of compulsory age must attend school unless they fall into any of the exemptions under the Act.

“Parents have a legal obligation to ensure their children attend school, and the minister has a legal duty to ensure our children attend school and that parents carry out their responsibility. Failure to carry out this duty is accompanied by a criminal sanction.”

The education minister encourages parents to become more active participants in the education of their children, attend PTA (parent-teacher association) meetings if they can, communicate with their children, so they can have a full understanding of the process, and develop respectful and collaborative relationships with their teachers and school administration.

“It takes a village and parents are the primary participants in this collective enterprise,” said Hanna-Martin.

She said the recruitment and training today of the new attendance officers is manifestation of the minister’s resolve to carry out the legal duty mandated in the Education Act and in the interest of children. And that shortly, there will be recruitment of officers on Grand Bahama and other islands.

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Shavaughn Moss

Shavaughn Moss joined The Nassau Guardian as a sports reporter in 1989. She was later promoted to sports editor. Shavaughn covered every major athletic championship from the CARIFTA to Central American and Caribbean Championships through to World Championships and Olympics. Shavaughn was appointed as the Lifestyles Editor a few years later.

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