Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project

The Lac Courte Oreilles Band's Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project seeks to reduce truancy among Lac Courte Oreilles youth. Under this project, schools on and near the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation have implemented a specialized curriculum that encourages students who are struggling with school attendance to share their stories with their peers through facilitated conversations. The curriculum, known as Mastering The Journey, engages at-risk and habitually truant students and empowers them to address the challenges in their lives that contribute to truancy.

Program Running Length: 2009 - Present

Location: Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation (Hayward, Wisconsin)

Land Characteristics: The Lac Courte Oreilles reservation encompasses approximately 107 square miles in northwestern Wisconsin. It lies 90 miles southeast of Duluth, Minnesota, and 140 miles northeast of Minneapolis. Largely rural, the reservation is dominated by forest land and features numerous lakes.

Population: As of 2013 there are 7,275 enrolled members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin.

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BACKGROUND

Problem to be Addressed

In recent years, truancy has emerged as a major challenge among Lac Courte Oreilles youth at both the Lac Courte Oreilles’ Ojibwe School (operated by the tribe) and Hayward High School (operated by the Hayward Community School District). This problem has been compounded by persistent delays in the delivery of supportive services to truant youths and their families. In 2008 the county issued 147 truancy citations to 82 youths. Thirty-seven kids produced 89 of the citations, demonstrating that many of the youth were continuing to miss school even after having been cited for truancy. This system was not addressing the root causes of truancy, and was therefore not helping to reduce it.

Target Population

The Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project has both a prevention component and an intervention component. As a prevention measure, it targets at-risk Lac Courte Oreilles youth attending sixth grade at the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School. “At-risk” students are those who are having attendance issues but are not yet considered habitually truant under the school’s truancy policy. As an intervention tool, this project targets habitually truant high school students at Hayward Public High School and the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School. “Habitually truant” students are those with five or more unexcused absences in a semester. Many of the youths targeted for this program have experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, or other trauma, and many also have mental health and substance abuse issues.

Program History

Background

Lac Courte Oreilles youth attend both tribal and non-tribal schools. The tribal school is called the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School, which includes an elementary, middle, and high school. In 2010, the tribal school had 330 enrolled tribal youth. Students receive a standard curriculum of math, sciences, social studies and language arts, infused with Ojibwe language and cultural classes. Additionally, the tribe has access to an Ojibwe language immersion school, Waadookkodaading, which is a charter school that is part of the Hayward Community School District. This charter school had a total enrollment of 51 students in 2013. 

Approximately two-thirds of Lac Courte Oreilles tribal youth attend non-tribal schools. In 2010, 70 students attended the nearby Winter School District and close to 500 Lac Courte Oreilles youth were enrolled in the neighboring Hayward Community School District (elementary, middle, and high school combined), comprising almost a quarter of that district’s total student body. For years, tribal officials have been concerned about the startlingly high level of truancy among Native American students in the Hayward Community School District. Before this project was implemented, Hayward High School had 131 Native students, 67 of whom were considered habitually truant. This number (51 percent) was disproportionately high when compared to truancy among the general student population.

In addition, tribal officials felt that the existing process for addressing truancy was not effective. Schools were waiting months to identify and intervene with truant students. In many cases, no action was taken until students were deemed habitually truant and falling behind academically. There was little attempt to prevent truancy or respond to it before it became a serious problem. In addition, students frequently did not receive any meaningful services until six months or more after the school identified them as truant. By this time, the school year was likely over or nearing its end. For their part, school administrators felt pressure to respond to more pressing crises, leaving problems like truancy untended.

Early Efforts

In 2008, Lac Courte Oreilles officials began a series of efforts to address truancy more effectively. The executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Lac Courte Oreilles began discussing truancy issues with the schools and developed a multi-agency Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Team. The team included tribal and county court judges, school principals, and truancy officers, who were funded by both the county and the school district. Together, the team discussed how each school was handling truancy issues, including existing policies and procedures, the number of absences allowed before filing a truancy citation, and the intervention strategies being used.

These early efforts resulted in modest improvements, but officials determined that a more intensive approach was needed to achieve significant reductions in truancy. The team rallied support from the Hayward school board, the Hayward school superintendent, and other key partners, who worked together to draft a strategic plan for effective truancy intervention. Using this plan, the Lac Courte Oreilles Band applied for and received a Tribal Youth Program (TYP) grant from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in 2009.

TYP Grant

With the Tribal Youth Program grant in hand, the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Team set out to implement a more effective approach to truancy prevention and intervention. From past experience, they knew they wanted to identify truancy problems more quickly and intervene with coordinated services right away. In addition, the tribe wanted to empower youth to make transformational changes in their lives that would lead to healthy decisions, including better school attendance. Ultimately, they wanted to address the root causes of truancy, including past trauma and other serious challenges. 

To start, the Chief Professional Officer of The Boys and Girls Club of Lac Courte Oreilles looked for a school-based curriculum that could be used effectively with truant youth. The Chief Professional Officer ultimately chose Social Responsibility Training (SRT®), an evidence-based life skills training curriculum developed by Character Development Systems, which she presented to the team. This curriculum aims to help students develop cognitive, behavioral, and social skills, and it serves as a prevention and community intervention tool for truant youth. It includes writing and discussion exercises that allow students to explore the underlying issues that contribute to their truancy, including past trauma. Students develop a vision of how they would like their lives to look in the future. Before using this curriculum, however, the Truancy Prevention Specialist and Executive Director got the owners’ permission to change the name to Mastering The Journey, which they thought would appeal better to tribal youth.

Trained coaches would deliver the program during the school day to at-risk and truant youth who had been referred to the program by the schools or the courts. The schools’ regular, certified teachers would remain in the classroom during the class periods in which the Mastering The Journey curriculum was taught by the program’s trained coaches.

At first, the tribe began implementing the program at Hayward High School and the Lac Courte Oreilles tribal school two days per week. They discovered, however, that a more intensive approach was needed to make the kind of transformational impact they had envisioned, so they increased the program to five days per week. This change was not easy—it required the support of teachers, who adjusted the school schedule to accommodate Mastering The Journey classes. The project also hired a truancy specialist to be the liaison between the students, school officials, and the courts.

“We love our coaches. This is the best class I’ve had. We should have it every year”. – M.C., 7th Grade
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PROGRAM DESCRIPTION

Program Goals and Objectives

The program’s primary goal was to reduce truancy through a more intensive and collaborative approach. This new approach focused on empowering students to address their underlying issues (like past trauma, substance abuse, and other challenges), make better choices, re-engage with school, and value their education. The Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project aimed to reduce the number truancy cases by 75 percent over the three-year grant period (2009-2012).

Program Design

This project’s primary strategy for truancy prevention/intervention is the implementation of a curriculum called Mastering The Journey. The curriculum encourages students to share their personal stories in the form of testimonies and engage in supportive discussions with their classmates about difficult issues in their lives. This process empowers students to begin dealing with some of the trauma they have experienced and to envision a better future for themselves. Moreover, this process motivates students to attend school as they begin to see school as a safe place that offers needed support.

The curriculum is offered as a preventative measure to sixth graders at the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School, where it is delivered in the classroom one day per week. As an intervention tool, the curriculum is delivered five days per week to high school students at both the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School and Hayward High School.

The curriculum is delivered by Mastering The Journey coaches, who are trained in SRT®, by the truancy prevention coordinator. Coaches are prepared to identify any safety concerns that may emerge during the program and can make referrals to mental health treatment providers and other services as needed. Many staff members from the Boys & Girls Club of Lac Courte Oreilles have been trained as coaches.

Program Administration

For this project, Ms. Karen Harden, who is the Chief Professional Officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Lac Courte Oreilles, serves as grant manager for the tribe’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Tribal Youth Program grant, which funds the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project. Ms. Kim Lambert serves as project coordinator and truancy specialist for the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project. 

The project is overseen by a Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Team, which consists of the grant manager (grant-funded), a program coordinator/truancy specialist (grant-funded), county truancy officers, teachers, school administrators, and court staff. The Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Team meets twice each year to discuss how the program is working and make any necessary changes to improve the program.

Day-to-day implementation of the program is handled by a smaller Truancy Prevention Team consisting of the truancy specialist, Hayward High School’s assistant principal, and the county’s two truancy officers. This team works directly with at-risk and truant students to provide services. This team meets regularly to review each participant’s progress.

Case Flow Process

Eligibility Criteria

The Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project accepts all sixth grade students attending the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School and habitually truant high school students attending the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School or Hayward High School. Participation is strictly voluntary—no students are mandated to take part in this program, although judges from both the Tribal Truancy Court and Sawyer County Truancy Court do make strong recommendations to students whom they feel could benefit from the program.

Referral Process

This program accepts referrals from the tribal court, county court, and tribal and non-tribal schools.

School referrals: Local schools may refer at-risk students to the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Program before they are cited for habitual truancy. This option is used most often when school officials are concerned about a student’s attendance and are beginning to see a pattern of behavior that is likely to lead to a truancy citation in the future. In these cases, the student meets with the truancy specialist, the assistant principal, and the truancy officer and is offered the opportunity to participate in the program. Those who agree to participate begin taking part in the Mastering The Journey curriculum along with the other court- and school-referred students. Because the program is voluntary, the student (or parent) can refuse to participate. Ultimately, a consequence of refusing to participate is the likelihood of a formal truancy citation and court case.

Court referrals: When a student is cited for habitual truancy, the truancy specialist reviews the case with school administrators and discusses whether the student would be a good candidate for the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project. The truancy specialist then attends the student’s court hearing and makes a recommendation to the judge. Based on the truancy specialist’s recommendation and the student’s interest in the program, the judge may refer the student to the program.

For court-involved youth, the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Program serves as an alternative to the usual court process and provides an opportunity to address the underlying causes of truancy in a more meaningful way. Those who opt in to the program agree to attend school regularly and complete the Mastering The Journey curriculum before returning to court for a review hearing. Their legal case is stayed while the student participates in the program. If they complete the program successfully, the court will dismiss the truancy citation. If they fail to complete the program, or refuse to participate, their legal case resumes and follows the usual judicial process.

Supervision and Compliance

The truancy specialist, in collaboration with the coaches, teachers, and school administrators, monitors each participant’s school attendance and progress in the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Program. If concerns about attendance or program participation arise, the truancy specialist tries to address them with the student and provide appropriate support and referrals for other services. If truancy persists, the truancy specialist, program coordinator, and coaches meet with the student to try to resolve the issue and deliver a final warning before the student is cited again.

Court-referred students who have been cited for truancy have a status review hearing upon completion of the curriculum. At this hearing, the judge decides whether to dismiss the citation. Students referred by the school complete the curriculum to avoid being cited.

“I found adults that really care about me. You start to see your problems as challenges and to see your life in a better way.” – S.D., high school junior
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PLANNING & IMPLEMENTATION

Funding

The Lac Courte Oreilles Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Program was launched with funding from a four-year Tribal Youth Program grant awarded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in 2009. These grant funds paid for the curriculum and the salary of the program coordinator. The truancy officers, on the other hand, are not funded under the grant. Rather, the county pays 47 percent and local schools pay 53 percent of the truancy officers’ salaries.

In 2013, the tribe received another three-year Tribal Youth Program grant to continue the program and expand it further. This additional funding will allow the program to support two full-time truancy specialists, one for each participating school system.

Partnerships

The Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Project is a collaborative effort involving local courts, schools, and other partners.

The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School and Hayward High School offer classroom space and class time for coaches to implement the Mastering The Journey curriculum. In addition, the schools provide certified teachers, whose presence in the classroom allows the curriculum to be offered to students for course credit. School administrators share necessary information with the truancy specialist, help identify at-risk youth, and make referrals to the program.

The Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Court and the Sawyer County Juvenile Court make referrals to the program and hold cases open while students participate. Their willingness to try an alternative approach in truancy cases makes it possible for the program to address the underlying causes of truancy and work toward meaningful, long-term solutions.

The project also enjoys support from the tribe’s Indian Child Welfare Department, the Sawyer County Department of Health & Human Services, the Sawyer County Sheriff’s Department, and is under the leadership of the Boys and Girls Club Chief Professional Officer and Truancy Prevention Coordinator. The Boys and Girls Club of Lac Courte Oreilles provides all of the program’s trained coaches.

Factors Contributing to Success

The project partners believe that many factors contributed to their program’s success.

Team approach – By developing a coordinated approach, the project partners were able to speed up the truancy intervention process and deliver better services to students more quickly.

Strong support – Each of the partner agencies proved willing to make significant changes to their existing practices. The courts held truancy cases open while giving this alternative approach a chance to work. School administrators made it possible to deliver the Mastering The Journey curriculum in school. The teachers agreed to participate in the program, allowing the curriculum to be delivered for course credit. Tribal staff and other community members volunteered to be trained and serve as coaches.

Trusted institutions – The project partners were willing to come to the table in part because the Boys and Girls Club of Lac Courte Oreilles was a trusted leader. The Boys and Girls Club had worked hard to develop a record of success and was highly regarded by the community.

Challenges

Program planners faced an early challenge—how to deliver the Mastering The Journey curriculum during the school day for course credit. They felt it was critically important for participating students, who were already struggling to attend school, to receive academic credit for their hard work. Academic credit would serve to recognize students’ efforts and would provide additional incentive for students to participate and attend school.

Initially, there was some resistance to the idea of offering course credit for this program. Some teachers and school administrators expressed concern that the program was seeking to bring new staff into the schools at a time when the schools were facing serious budget cuts. There was even concern that bringing the program into the schools would lead to some teachers being replaced with lower-cost coaches.

To ease these concerns, the program coordinator emphasized that the program wanted to work in collaboration with teachers, not replace them. In fact, the coordinator hoped to be able to transfer the coaching of the curriculum over to teachers in the long term so that the program would be more sustainable. Ultimately, the teachers and school administrators came to support this program and agreed to put teachers in the classroom side-by-side with the trained coaches.

Lessons Learned

The planning team learned several key lessons during this project:

Identify the key decision-makers – The planning team initially sought approval to launch the program from the Hayward school board. They quickly learned, however, that the key decision maker was actually the school superintendent. After adjusting their approach, they were able to get the necessary approval from the superintendent and move ahead with the project.

Finding the correct “dosage” – The Mastering The Journey curriculum was originally offered two days per week to habitually truant high school students at Hayward High School. Before long, though, project staff recognized that a more intensive approach would be needed to achieve the kind of results they wanted. Working with school officials, the project staff expanded the program to five days per week, which allowed for more in-depth discussions with students and more effective student engagement.

Effective communication – Early program implementation was hampered by a lack of effective communication between program staff and school officials. When program staff began entering the schools to deliver the curriculum, it became clear that the classroom teachers were not informed about the scope of the program. It took some time for teachers to adjust the school day to accommodate this extra class. Program implementation could have been streamlined with clearer communication.

Success takes patience – Today, program staff explain that it took three years to get this program running smoothly. It was difficult to develop an effective system for engaging truant students before they receive a citation. It was a challenge to coordinate the services that students need to stay in school. Moreover, these issues were complicated by the fact that each school district deals with truancy in its own way. Ultimately, the partners’ persistence led to a successful model that meets the needs of Lac Courte Oreilles youth and families.

“This class helped me not to be afraid of who I am. I can talk about my feelings.” – J.M., 7th grade
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PROGRAM OUTCOMES

Number Served

Since its inception, the program has served 792 participants through meetings at schools with students to discuss attendance, truancy court appearances and class participants in Mastering The Journey. The number of citations issued annually (per school year) has dropped approximately 20 percent. This initiative was a work-in-process with many other agencies and programs working together to assist the Boys and Girls Club to address truancy in many different ways.

Program Effectiveness

Prior to 2009, Lac Courte Oreilles students often received multiple truancy citations before receiving any meaningful intervention or services. Under the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Program, the schools and the courts now work together to engage students in services earlier, after the first or second citation. As a result, the number of students receiving three or more citations has nearly reached zero, and the overall truancy rate among the target population has been reduced by 72 percent during the initial three-year grant period. 

The success of the Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Program has had some unforeseen impacts as well. Agencies that used to spend considerable time dealing with truancy-related matters are now finding that they can concentrate on other areas of need. For example, the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Child Welfare office no longer receives truancy referrals, freeing up valuable resources to handle other child welfare matters. Also, the program has lessened the pressure on the judicial system by decreasing the number of chronic truants by 72 percent. 

In addition to systemic impacts, this program has offered significant individual benefits to participants. Lac Courte Oreilles youth now have higher graduation rates and are less likely to be cited for other offenses. Some participants report that they have stopped using drugs. In addition, students are receiving better information about school attendance policies, are better informed about how truancy can negatively impact their lives, and are receiving needed services before they are cited for truancy.

The Comprehensive Truancy Prevention Program has recently received national attention.  One of the students who completed the Mastering The Journey curriculum was invited to Washington, D.C. to address officials from the U.S. Department of Interior and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In addition, the National Congress of American Indians has asked program staff for input in the development of a nation-wide outreach strategy for Native American youth. First Pic Incorporated has asked program staff to contribute to a blog on the Boys and Girls Club Native American Website, www.naclubs.org.

Community Response

The truancy specialist successfully brokered the first ever meeting between the Lac Courte Oreilles tribal council and Hayward Community School District officials. This unprecedented level of collaboration is a reflection of this program’s success.

Success Stories

C.M. is a Native student who started Mastering The Journey as a junior at Hayward High School. He was the only male in his class and initially felt uncomfortable. Soon after joining the class, C.M. found out that his freshman girlfriend was pregnant with his child. He spent the majority of his workbook time doing exercises that focused on the coming challenges of becoming a young father. He was also dealing with his parents’ divorce, and one of his parents was working toward sobriety. Three years later, C.M. has graduated high school and is enrolled in a technical school, where is studying criminal justice and law enforcement. He plans to give back to his Native community by becoming a police officer. C.M. is also raising his two-year-old daughter as a single parent. He says that Mastering The Journey helped him change his life plan.

M.D. is a Native student who started Mastering The Journey as a sophomore at Hayward High School. She was the youngest student in her class. Like many students, M.D. started out feeling like she didn’t really “need” this class to finish school. During the class, however, M.D. began to realize that she was not always a nice person. She started to understand how positive relationships can work. In her junior year, M.D. continued struggling with school attendance and decided to join the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy, a “quasi-military residential program” for youth at risk of dropping out of school. As part of the Challenge Academy, M.D. completed a five-month residential stay at Fort McCoy, a service-learning project, and 160 hours of supervised employment. She then went to work for AmeriCorp in Sacramento, California. Today, M.D. has completed her 17-month Challenge Academy requirements, and she recently walked across the stage at her high school graduation. She plans to move to Los Angeles and tutor at-risk youth. She wants to help kids who are struggling to help themselves. She says, “Mastering The Journey helped me to become an authentic person.”

T.J. is a Native student who is currently enrolled in Mastering The Journey at Hayward High School. While participating in the program, he was suspended from school and required to continue his studies from home or at a “neutral site.” T.J. worked hard on his school work while suspended and continued his Mastering The Journey studies. His coach visited him every week. When he returned to school, T.J. was caught up to his peers in Mastering The Journey, and he will soon complete the program. He has one more year of high school, after which he plans to join the Marines and follow the example of his brother, who is currently serving in San Diego.  T.J. says that, “Mastering The Journey has helped me get through things I never thought I could overcome. It has inspired me to be more of a leader, especially to my little brother, but others too.”

Other testimonies from past class participants:

  • “It was the coaches that I learned to trust that made the difference for me in Mastering The Journey. I would come to school and stay in all day just to go to this class.” – C.W., 2014 graduate
  • “You cannot control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.” – C.M., 2013 graduate
  • “We learned responsibility and respect.” – H.V., 6th grade
  • “I learned how to be a better me.” – A.Q., high school senior 
“I learned that if I show respect, I will be respected.” – L.J., 6th grade

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