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State’s crusade to get kids in school shows early results, stirs controversy


June 17, 2013 | MPRN  The state’s idea is to provide as many support services as possible for low-income families with kids who miss school. But officials with the state Department of Human Services say if a student continues to be truant despite those efforts, there has to be some consequence.Students older than 15 already risk losing their own cash assistance if they’re truant. But as of late last year, students age six through 15 could be responsible for losing the benefits for their entire family.   

At Floyd Elementary School in Midland, it’s Aricka Mealback’s job to try to make sure it doesn’t come to that.Mealback spends her time connecting students and their families to resources they need to avoid missing school. Today she’s working on lining up a bed for a student who doesn’t have one.

“And so we’re working on securing a donation for that to help them out.”

And school officials say there are a lot fewer empty seats at Floyd Elementary these days. In just a few months, administrators say weekly absences are down by close to two-thirds of what they were when Mealback and another D.H.S. worker came to the school. Principal Rod Dishaw says he didn’t even know his school had a truancy problem a year ago.

“But what we’ve discovered as we’ve looked at the data is we have kids that maybe were missing five or six or seven or eight days. Not because of sickness, but because they had to go to Grandma’s, and Grandma lived out of town, or whatever that may be.”   

Dishaw says the D.H.S. workers help students find adequate transportation, appropriate school clothes, and other things.    But a handful of students still slip through the cracks.    

As of late last month, the state had revoked welfare benefits from 54 families statewide because of school absences. D.H.S. officials say that suggests the department is doing a good job reaching students and families before they lose their benefits.   

But critics of the policy say schools like Floyd Elementary are not typical cases. Pilot programs like that in Midland County only include a handful of schools.    

Gilda Jacobs is with the Michigan League for Public Policy. She says the vast majority of low-income families in the state are getting less carrot and more of the proverbial stick.

“It’s great. The wraparound services is a wonderful model to be able to provide to kids and to their families. But it’s only being piloted in four areas. But yet, you have a situation where you’ve created a policy that goes for the entire state.”   

Jacobs says it’s also not fair that some children could lose their much-needed cash assistance if a sibling misses school too much.

“We’re just not sure that it makes sense to do something that punishes an entire family when just one child is truant.”   

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Lansing are considering putting the D.H.S. policy into state law. That would mean future administrations would have to go through the Legislature if they wanted to change or get rid of it.   

The bill passed fairly easily in the state House with bipartisan support. It’s now awaiting action in the state Senate.   

For the Michigan Public Radio Network, I’m Jake Neher in Lansing. 

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