CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Travel to Webster County, and you'll find about 9,100 residents, a few small towns and a handful of rivers. You'll also find an alarming trend at the county's six schools: a spiking student truancy rate.
Nearly 7 out of 10 students at Webster County High School skipped school five or more days this year without permission -- a total of 345 students, according to the state Department of Education.
Almost half of the student body -- 249 students -- was truant 10 or more days. And about 36 percent of students at the county's six schools were absent without permission for five or more days.
"Attendance is a big problem," said Martha Dean, superintendent of Webster County Schools. "Students learn when they're in class. If they skip school, they can get behind, make bad grades, get discouraged and then they continue not to come to school. It's a cyclical thing, but we're working to correct it."
Webster County High School had the highest student truancy rate in West Virginia this year, but it is by no means unique.
About one in five West Virginia students -- almost 78,200 -- had five or more unexcused absences this year, according to the Department of Education. More than 29,000 students, or 9 percent of students statewide, were truant more than 10 days this year.
Almost 40 percent of public schools in West Virginia had more than a quarter of their students skip school five or more times without an approved excuse. At 25 schools, more than half of the student body was truant for five or more days.
West Virginia has a slew of problems within its education system, from bottom-level test scores to a big shortage of teachers, but perhaps the most vexing issue educators face has been how to get students to show up to school in the first place.
"Attendance is something that is so critical to overall performance and success in education," said Jorea Marple, state superintendent of schools. "That's really the first step. I think parents really need to step up and make sure that their kids are here and in class. Education is the moral imperative of everyone and we can only teach students if they're at school."
At Riverside High School in Kanawha County, where 52 percent of the 1,388 students were truant for five or more days this year, administrators have launched a series of initiatives to reverse the trend.
"Attendance is one of our biggest concerns," said Valery Harper, principal at Riverside High. "We're trying to put more awards in place for good attendance."
Harper said student attendance is tied to their ability to attend prom, and students with better attendance records get first priority on class scheduling. Harper also intersperses pep rallies and fun school events on different weeks throughout the year to make students want to attend school.
Kanawha County has also upped the punishments for missing too much class -- a student's driver's license, for instance, can be revoked if he or she skips school too many school days.
Truancy is obviously a major education issue, but in West Virginia it is also a legal issue. If students miss five or more days of school without an excuse, the school principal schedules a mandatory meeting with the student's parents or guardian to develop an attendance improvement plan. If parents fail to get their kids in line and get them to school, principals can bring charges against the parents in the courts.
The exact legal process for dealing with truancy, however, varies throughout the state, said Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
In some cases, counties take legal action against parents of truant students. In other cases, the counties bypass the magistrate courts altogether and charge truant students in juvenile courts.
"There's a lot of gray area when it comes to the attendance laws," said Cordeiro. "Every county interprets them a little differently."
Last year, the Supreme Court decided to team up with the school system to get a handle on the truancy problem. Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis coordinated an effort to connect circuit judges with school systems and community officials to keep children in school. Counties like Wayne, which has a countywide truancy rate of about 27 percent, have probation officers specifically assigned to deal with truancy.
"The truancy habit can lead students to drop out of school before graduation," said Davis. "That is usually the beginning of a lifetime of trouble that can include unemployment, drug dependency, crime and incarceration. We can't afford to wait another minute to address this problem, or to allow another young life to be wasted."
Marple thinks the different school-wide and legal initiatives are parts of the puzzle, but the key to solving the truancy epidemic is simple: offer classes that make students want to come to school in the first place. Teaching just reading and math won't do the trick, she says.
"We want to broaden the curriculum so that children can find success more likely in a variety of subjects and want to be there," said Marple. "That doesn't mean we're taking away from an emphasis on reading and math. But we need more art and music to engage them."
Harper agrees. "If school's boring, they're not going to come," she said. "We've got to bring education to their level."
Reach Amy Julia Harris at email@example.com or 304-348-4814.