Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Gdowski Family: The intended target

Written by: Stephanie Morgan

We know that Nebraska’s new “truancy” law is making victims of ordinary kids and their families and that even kids with excused absences and good academic records are caught up in a net that is cast too wide. But what about kids who really struggle in school and have lost interest in their education? Is the law helping them? After all, they are the kids that law was intended to help; it was passed with the intent of saving these kids from academic failure, dropping out of school, and worse.

Melissa Gdowski shared the story of her daughter’s struggles with school attendance that ended this week when her 16 year old daughter dropped out of school to avoid any more dealings with truancy court. Melissa’s daughter was the quiet kid. She listened to teachers, followed the rules, and never had a detention. Her teachers loved her. Despite these indications of school success, she never really liked school.

Melissa was a stay-at-home mom until her husband was injured on the job. Then she had to take a full time job, working 70-80 hours per week to support her family. Her daughter was only five years old when hard times hit. When Melissa’s daughter was thirteen, her father died of cancer. Melissa sold everything--tractors, trucks, cattle, their dogs and cats-- and moved to town.

By the ninth grade her daughter wouldn’t go to school for weeks at a time. Melissa was diligent in helping her daughter to adjust to life and engage in school, she understood the tragedies her young daughter had suffered and had her in counseling continually after her dad died. Melissa tried everything to get her daughter to school. She enlisted friends and family to wake her up and take her to school. Melissa recalled her oldest son picking her daughter up and “carrying her to the car to go to school”. She even asked a school counselor to come to the house to take her to school.

Melissa felt she had exhausted all her options when last year the school hired a "teacher" who worked with the students who struggled to attend and their families. At first she was happy to work with the specialist. “It was a relief. I actually thought that she understood how hard I was trying to get her to go to school. I thought she saw how frustrated I was. I thought I was doing the right thing.” Melissa said. This is why she was shocked when she got a letter from the county attorney in the mail summoning her daughter to court. To add insult to injury, Melissa was shocked to find out that the school had reported to the county attorney that she was uncooperative, never sent notes, and was a negligent parent for not “making” her daughter go to school. The judge at least had some common sense and gave her a continuance telling her daughter, “Go to school, that’s all we want.”

That semester her daughter did so much better. She missed only 3 days! Melissa was so encouraged she said, “I was so happy and relieved. She was actually proud of herself.” At their next court date she took her daughter’s attendance record feeling hopeful that the county attorney would be as pleased as she was. Dismayed by what happened next, Melissa said, “The county attorney had a blow up.” The attorney scolded her saying, “Didn’t the judge tell you not to miss any days at all... So you are just blowing off the judge?” Melissa was shocked. Her daughter had gone from missing 40 days in 1st semester to 3 days 2nd semester and it didn’t satisfy the county attorney.

They held her daughter in contempt of court and the county attorney recommended juvenile detention. Melissa was horrified that her quiet, congenial girl who had never had a school detention was going to have to serve time in juvenile detention. She couldn’t believe they were going to put her daughter there, with kids who were real criminals, kids who had broken probation or were in there for drunk driving or worse.

Once again the juvenile judge utilized better judgment and ordered community service and a continuance, but unfortunately the whole experience was a huge blow to their confidence in the system and as the next court day approached fear took hold. Melissa’s daughter had missed some days and the thought of her daughter ending up in juvenile detention this go around was terrifying for both of them. Neither Melissa or her daughter were willing to test their luck a third time, and so with only 2 math classes left to graduate, her daughter left school for good.

“I cried for 2 days. This was not what I wanted for her. I am hoping she will go back to school someday.” Melissa said. “I so wanted her to graduate, but the pressure and stress of a possible truancy charge again, well that is what will keep her from going back.”

Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge, Liz Crnkovich, told the World Herald in February that “Confrontation doesn't translate into problem-solving and helping these kids change,” and yet Crnkovich has been a driving force behind the “confrontational” approach our state is taking to address truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime. I agree with her statement, confrontation doesn’t help kids change, as is apparent in Melissa’s story, but there are certainly more innovative approaches to habitual truancy then the one she helped construct in our state.

Crnkovich and team modeled Nebraska’s truancy program after the Jefferson County Truancy Diversion Project in Kentucky. The “acclaimed” program used as a model for judicially driven “truancy diversion”, has hardly produced the success one would expect for a “model” approach. Since it began in 1997, Jefferson County attendance rates have only risen 1% and graduation rates actually dropped by 1%. Despite the program, Jefferson County continues to be #1 in juvenile crime – both violent and nonviolent. NAEP test results for Jefferson County students continue to be well below the national average. In 2009 23% of 8th graders were proficient in math and 26% proficient in reading.

Melissa’s story adds force to the argument that Nebraska is addressing school attendance from the wrong side of the equation. Our judicial approach assumes that family is the primary source of a student's attendance problem and operates on the assumption that the sole effective solution to truancy lies outside the school. It is based on this false assumption that State officials believe that providing a legal mechanism by which the state can “intervene” into the homes of students with attendance “problems”, they can “mitigate and leading to academic failure.

In reality when lawyers and judges scrutinize, monitor, and prosecute the families who struggle they do more harm than good. Father Steven Boes, of Boys Town, testified at the hearings of LB800 (the new truancy law) in 2010 and asked officials in the room to remember that, “there's always at least one person in a family that wants what is best for their children and is willing to ask for and receive the help they need to help their child.” He continued, “I'm asking you to join Boys Town in proclaiming that not only are there no bad boys as Father Flanagan taught, but there are no bad families.”

In Melissa’s case this was certainly true, she had done everything for her daughter that she could do on her end of the equation. She had her daughter in counseling to handle the hardships of her dad’s death, she followed the recommendations of doctors, and she sought help from her family, friends, and the school. In the end Melissa’s daughter was just not interested in school. Perhaps there was something more that could have been done on the school’s end of the equation. I wonder listening to her story if the education system had stifled her love of learning and failed to engage her interest.

Studies show that students who fail to attend school most often "cited boredom and loss of interest in school, and irrelevant courses as the major factors in their decision to stop attending." Most commonly, from the student's perspective, the immediate cause of "truancy" lies within the school. Despite the belief among most educators that family problems cause habitual truancy, in fact schools can deal with many of the issues that cause truancy -- even in the face of indifferent or ineffective parenting.

We will continue to fail Nebraska’s kids if we continue to focus our energies in the wrong direction. Even if the confrontational approach to school attendance resulted in perfect attendance for every student, it does nothing to address the quality of education that is delivered to our kids. Melissa’s daughter struggled with attendance primarily because of lack of interest and motivation. Her mother said, “She always hated school”. So the real question is, how do you “make” a kid love school? It won’t happen by force, you can’t force a student to love school in a court room. There is some hope that you can lead, inspire, and motivate them in the school room. What Nebraska needs is true education reform and a lot of creativity and innovation in the classroom. It’s time to stop forcing attendance and instead inspire it.


  1. I wonder what sort of effect it would have on students like Melissa's daughter if Nebraska opened the doors for charter schools. When one type of school doesn't engage a student, and it's the only kind of school available, you've got to expect only one outcome - disengagement and internalizing the message that "school is boring and torturous!" But if you can choose from 2 or 3 other school options in the area, there's a chance that another school will fit.

    This story breaks my heart. This is another poster child for the travesty that is this law - I hope Nebraska lawmakers understand that their personal decisions in voting for LB 800 and LB 462 created this situation in this family's life, and that they can see through this story (if they can't through all the others!) why this law needs to be changed.

  2. This story broke my heart, and touched me in a personal way for several reasons. One detail of Melissa's story I didn't share is that she has two older sons who are quite a bit older than her daughter. Her older brothers are 26 and 27, and so she was the straggler. I say that affectionately because I have one of those precious miracle babies in my family. When Melissa's daughter started Kindergarten her brothers would have been in high-school. Most of their raising had been done by that point, and all that time she had been blessed with the ability to be a stay-at-home mom and give her full attention and energy to their care.

    I thought about how I would feel as a mother in a similar situation, with a my second child being ten years younger than my first, I could only imagine how I would feel having to go back to work to support my family when my little one was not yet raised. What would I do if he began to struggle with life and school and I didn't have the time or resources to pull him from school, or find him an alternative that would work for him? How would I feel if I were Melissa? I would be so sad!

    Melissa had only one option and that option was failing her daughter, failing her family! It is so easy for the "experts" to blame her daughter’s educational struggles on "the family". It's so easy to for them to turn a blind eye to the failings of our public education system that provides no flexibility, no options for kids who aren't a good fit for the ridged box that is public school.

    So many people I have discussed the truancy law with, crassly comment that parents who have a problem with the law should just home school or find another option, but that if they send their kids to public school they should understand that this is the kind of thing that comes with the territory. What world do they live in? Do they live in a world where families like Melissa’s don’t exist? Are they so caught up in their “privileged” world that they can’t imagine the circumstances of so many families who have no choice, public school is all that is left to them.

    Our public school system fails too many children and we have got to start thinking outside the box. When my oldest started school after five years of being home with mom he was a little sponge, he loved to learn, he soaked up everything. He was an extraordinary kid, bright, creative, and well beyond his years, but each year of his early school years it seemed that the school system chipped away a little more of his love for learning. He struggled, he didn’t like school, it didn’t make learning exciting, and it didn’t keep his attention. I used my energy and time with him at home (as a stay at home mom) to supplement his education with the types of enrichment that I hoped would help him to hold on to the interest in learning that had been so natural to him as a toddler and young child.

    With some grit and a lot of time and attention I did it, he got through the mundane grueling early education years of “reading, writing, and arithmetic”, the constant drilling of math basics, the boring repetitive reading of fluency exercises, the irrelevant writing prompts, and the poor showing of science and history with just enough of his natural love of learning to see him through till school got more challenging more interesting.

    What if tradgedy had hit my family at that time, like it did Melissa’s? Would my have come to hate school as her daughter did? It is certainly likely!

  3. How tragic that someone who is beat up by life's turn of events should suffer greater humiliation and scolding. May we all bear the blame for letting our Govenor and Legislators get away with such legislation.

  4. What's more, Stephanie, is that even if a family decides to make the personal sacrifice to homeschool, they'll still be paying for the public school! So you pay for the public school, but can't use the resources you're paying for because you'd like a little flexibility. It makes so much more sense - and it's right! - to let those who are paying for the services have a say in how they're delivered. And I'm troubled to think that good people might be able to hear the stories of how this law can affect good people, and still say, "Well, I pay for the services too, and this IS how I think they should be delivered."