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Volunteers help teens clear up absences, talk to parents

By Molly Farmer | Posted - May 9, 2011 at 11:58 p.m.


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OREM — There are no grades given in a four-week course at Mountain View High School, but there is extra credit if students bring their parents. And most of them do.

The two-hour classes are focused on helping pre-selected teenagers and the adults in their lives better understand each other in hopes of solving truancy problems at school.

Students with failing attendance are drawn to the evening mediation class by a guarantee that they can have some of their unexcused absences dismissed. If they bring their parents, even more will be erased.

"The real underlying issue is we're trying to get the communication flowing between them and their parents," said Jared Casey, who helps facilitate the effort.

The program was created by Grant Richards, a professor in behavioral sciences at Utah Valley University, and is administered by college students enrolled in his classes. Casey, one of Richards' students, is the site coordinator at Mountain View and has been part of the program for two years.

"Kids have their own issues and perspective," Casey said. "We try to help the parents understand it's not always the story you think it is. … Hopefully the students can see the parents' issues as well."

Although their attendance might be self-interested at first, the teens leave better equipped to communicate with their parents and more invested in their education, Casey said.

Richards said the program and others like it are offered in about a dozen schools in the Provo and Alpine school districts. Over the years, he said he's been surprised at how little some parents and their children communicate. Many parents who attend the meetings were previously unaware that their kids were skipping class.

"It's just amazing how many families don't sit down together and have dinner any more, don't talk anymore," he said.

In schools that don't offer such an alternative, the consequences can get serious pretty quickly. In the Alpine School District, students with five or more unexcused absences in any of their eight courses can't pass the class, regardless of their grade, meaning some are held back. If they want to get things cleared up, it's on to truancy classes and in some cases juvenile court.

Richards spends an average of three nights every week volunteering at a number of schools to maintain their respective programs — that's in addition to the college courses he teaches.

"I'm past retirement age, but just felt strongly that we need to keep working with this," he said.

The program always begins by empowering parents. The first class of each session is dedicated to teaching parents how to access their school district's online attendance and grade-tracking system so they can keep tabs on their child's progress.

After the sessions, the UVU students attend staff meetings at the school and alert counselors or administrators to any specific needs the kids have.

Casey said the UVU students don't provide counseling, they simply create a safe environment where teenagers and parents can have a dialogue and work out any problems. It's common for teens to shut down and turn inward or yell back when parents ask probing questions, but that is avoided by having ground rules of respect established.

"The communication that happens there, you're not going to find it anywhere else," said Jose Enriquez, assistant principal at Mountain View High. "The parents love it. … They have a forum where they can have a mediator where the kid is not just yelling back."

David Collins, a student at Mountain View, said the program gave him a chance to reevaluate some of his bad habits.

"It's actually helping me stay in school and want to be at school. And it helps me communicate with my family and other adults," the sophomore said. "I also learned that you can communicate better as long as you feel comfortable in the situation you're in."

The program helps about 75 to 85 percent of the kids involved, Enriquez said.

For the rest, there is a more in-depth course offered to help entire families. Enriquez said parental communication extends beyond family relationships into the classroom, which is why schools are involved.

"If they can learn how to argue, then we've already started a path to improvement within the home, which leads to improvement within the school," he said.

Email:mfarmer@ksl.com

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Molly Farmer

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