If Rod Smalley is knocking on your front door early in the morning, then you’re probably a middle or high school student who didn’t show up for school and has no valid excuse for sleeping in.
If you don’t get up, his knocking will continue. In an interview last week, he said he won’t stop knocking until the student in question answers the door.
Most students will answer the door, not because Smalley is a 235-pound former NFL linebacker who looks like he could rip the door off its hinges, but because they know that Smalley, the disrict’s 41-year-old dropout prevention specialist, cares about them. He cares about the two dozen truant students he tracks on a daily basis from his Minden office at ASPIRE. He cares about his larger case load that easily surpasses a hundred pupils in a year.
“If they’ve had a truancy in the past, then they are on a watch list,” Smalley said. “Depending on the issue, I might call. But if they’ve missed the bus or have no car, or are refusing to go to school, then I take them to school. Some students do have issues. Their parents might be at work. But if they’re in ninth grade or higher, then it’s their responsibility to get to the bus or have a ride. I try to make them accountable at that level.”
Coworkers Tricia Wentz, district-wide counselor, and Lyn Gorrindo, assistant superintendent, both serve with Smalley on the district’s advisory truancy board. They may refer to him as a teddy bear or a sweetheart, but they know that together they must walk the line between firmness and compassion.
“There are many reasons why students are truant,” said Wentz. “The ‘give up’ factor is huge once they get in the hole.”
Over the last five years, that hole has deepened with the economic recession.
“We do have families in tough situations,” Wentz said. “Kids living with their grandparents. Kids absent because they’re helping family members.”
“I would say truancy is up this year,” added Smalley.
Wentz, Gorrindo and Smalley work together throughout the school year. Gorrindo splits her time between the district office, where she oversees Education Services, and ASPIRE, of which she is the chief administrator.
Standing for All Students Pursuing Integrity, Responsibility and Education, ASPIRE is the district’s alternative education program housed in the old Bently building off Buckeye Road. With current enrollment hovering around 85, the school focuses on credit recovery and a culture of responsibility for students who have struggled in traditional settings.
Wentz is the counselor of ASPIRE but works with school counselors district-wide as well.
Smalley also works at ASPIRE as a part-time social studies and physical education instructor. The other half of the time he is the district’s dropout prevention specialist. That his office is located at ASPIRE only simplifies matters. Class sizes are small, so it’s easy to spot absences, and he’s not too far from Douglas High.
Under Nevada law, more than three truancies result in “habitual” status and warrant an appearance before the aforementioned advisory board, the members of which meet monthly and develop specialized plans for wayward students.
“Once they have a plan, we can usually get them moving forward in the right direction,” Smalley said. “We do our best to do it without a penalty.”
On paper, attendance requirements are simple. Out of 180 school days in a year, 91 percent attendance is required. No more than nine excused absences are allowed each semester unless parents have obtained permission. For instance, a student with a debilitating illness may be excused from the requirement provided they have access to, and complete, coursework.
In reality, attendance can be an emotional battle for students who are slipping.
“‘Overwhelmed’ is the word I would use to describe their state,” said Wentz. “They see how much they need to follow that graduation time-line, the gaps in credit. The function of the board is to use all the resources we have to get them out of the hole.”
The challenge for the anti-truancy team is getting students to buy in, to value education and their own long-term goals. The conversation usually starts with a discussion about the future.
“One of the things we ask them is what their future goals are,” said Wentz. “It’s a hard one. At first, they can’t see past English III or English IV. There are a lot of hoops they have to jump through to get to their goal, not only their diploma but after that. It’s a hard sell for kids who are discouraged about job opportunities.”
Smalley teaches students that school is preparation for the real world.
“School can give them those good habits, how to get up and go to work everyday,” he said. “If you don’t show up for work 25 days in a row, you’re probably going to get fired. You’re not going to be able to pay your bills.”
Smalley said students need constant reminding of what exactly is at stake:
“They need to realize that not getting their diploma is shutting the door without any chance to see what’s behind it.”
Hard work and heartbreak
From the onset, Smalley tells students that success requires hard work. There will be long hours of studying, after-school tutoring, even summer classes. There will be drama in the form of high-stakes testing, near-successes, failures, frustrations, and the need for resilience.
All the school district can do is offer support — focused, persistent, multi-sourced support.
“Sometimes it’s that favorite class or person that’s the hook,” said Wentz.
Some students go to school to see their boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, or favorite teacher. Others have no such anchor.
“We try to link them to some adult they can talk to about their experiences, the difficulties in their life,” she said, “someone who can help them set realistic goals. Often it’s a teacher who has sparked their interest.”
Smalley has a list. He knows who needs support. On a normal day, he gets to the office at 5:30 a.m. and starts making calls by 6.
“They know that if they’re sleeping in, they’re going to get woken up,” he said. “I’ll come to their door, and I won’t stop knocking until they’re up.”
Like a league of superheroes, the support team is there to move the student through the day, the week, the end of the year. Unlike superheroes, they don’t possess supernatural powers. Ultimately, the miracle of self-will has to originate and remain within the student.
Sometimes, students don’t make it.
“The fact they’re dropping out really bothers me,” said Smalley, when asked about the hardest part of his job. “It’s like if you worked the same job for 20 years, you’re one year from retiring, and then you decide not to go. I tell students they’ve already invested eight, nine, ten, eleven years. Don’t blow it now.”
Wentz said her toughest moments come when students turn 18 and disappear.
“We lose any kind of teeth to help them or refer them,” she said. “We know about the unresolved issues in their lives. We’ve tried to get them counseling. But we can only refer them to those services. We can’t mandate the support we offer them.”
For both employees, it’s a personal battle.
“I get to know these kids very well,” said Smalley. “I’m just trying to get them to see the big picture. They’re so close to getting what they need. I don’t want them to throw it away.”
Opposite heartbreak are those students who stick to their plan and graduate.
Wentz recalled two students who were close to dropping out last year. They were brought into ASPIRE and asked to work hard. They were provided the resources needed to succeed, and, more importantly, they wanted to succeed.
One graduated early this year, and the other is on track to do the same.
For those on the front lines of truancy, nothing is more rewarding:
“The greatest reward is when we see those kids who have been very resilient, very persistent,” Wentz said, “and they really do end up following through.”