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Q&A: Project START aims to stop truancy in Peoria County

Peoria County Regional Superintendent of Schools Beth Crider speaks at an August news conference announcing a campaign to improve attendance and enrollment. Crider says the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is having a permanent effect on education and local school districts.
Joe Deacon
Peoria County Regional Superintendent of Schools Beth Crider speaks at an August 2022 news conference announcing a campaign to improve attendance and enrollment. Crider says the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is having a permanent effect on education and local school districts.

A new program at the Peoria County Regional Office of Education aims to prevent violence by intervening to stop truancy.

Regional Superintendent Beth Crider says Project START, or Stop Truancy and Recommend Treatment, creates a “truancy board” to help guide the county’s efforts.

The project was funded through the latest round of violence prevention grants from the city of Peoria.

WCBU's Collin Schopp spoke with Crider to learn more about how Project START plans to function.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is Project START?

Regional Superintendent Beth Crider: So when I saw there were violence prevention dollars available through the city of Peoria, we have an issue with truancy in Peoria County. And I thought this was an opportunity to go to the heart of the issue of violence, which is truancy and families in need. So I applied for the grant to see if I could do something bigger besides just knocking on doors looking for students that aren't attending school.

So what forms will the program take, what will be happening?

Crider: This is an opportunity for us to recalibrate what we do about students that aren't attending school. Our goal is to start a truancy advisory board. Truancy is a symptom of something bigger, something is going on with this family. So how do we as a community, meet the needs of those families, intervene in a way that is proactive and get them back in school so that they get on the trajectory of a positive experience, rather than the trajectory of violence?

How will the truancy board function?

Crider: So right now, I have recruited someone to help lead out that truancy advisory board. We're considering a few locations. Our next step will be to talk to the state's attorney and those that are involved in truancy on the legal side of it. Then starting to gather community partners. We have so many agencies and people in Peoria that want to help. Well, we need to organize that, we need to put that together in a case management, client-centered approach, so that they know that we're here for their best interest.

It sounds like part of the goal is to refer people to resources they might need, to hopefully lessen truancy with their kids. How do you see this as being different than the Wraparound Center Peoria Public Schools has, or something like IRIS, which the police department uses to refer people to a bunch of organizations?

Crider: I'm hoping that we can somehow access Iris, we have not explored that yet. But that would be a critical component of how we do the case management. So that is on my radar, we are also going to be reaching out to Peoria Public Schools about using the Wraparound Center as where we host the truancy advisory board. We need to be in the locations where our families are so we can meet their needs.

What will the violence prevention funding do for this program?

Crider: So what we're hoping is, is that you have to have staff that can lead something like this, and that can track the cases. And that can meet the families where they are. If you can't get a parent or grandparent, whoever is the guardian of that child to come in, you might have to go to where they are at, and find them and work with them. And so it's about getting that staff on board, getting the paperwork organized, any kind of systems that we need to put in place. And so that's what the funding is going to be about. And we also applied for some funding for a van. Transportation tends to be the number one barrier to so many things, quality employment, getting to the doctor's office for that required physical that a child has to have. We want to help with that as well. And so that was part of what we wrote for.

What are some of the other organizations you’re hoping to partner with through this?

Crider: So let's talk about it in sectors. So when a family is experiencing truancy, it's generally because they are in crisis. So you have to first look at their basic needs. So yes, we will need access to food pantries, anything to do with rental assistance or electricity, water. Then what you have to look at is transportation and how can we assist with that and put some things in place? Is it mental health? We are coming across that more and more and more across our community. What resources can we link them to. The Systems of Care grant right now through Carle Health, we want to partner with them. So is it physical health? Is there something we can do to assist the family to get the quality care that they need? It's all sectors. It's an all hands on board approach. There's this idea that we kind of need a super agency right? We need a convener of all these people that are doing great work. But sometimes a family in crisis doesn't know which door to go in. So how can we bring them in at that moment of their greatest need and say: ‘We can help you figure out what door and we can get you the resources you need to walk through it.’

Sometimes families in crisis have had bad experiences in the past with government agencies, where does building trust come in? Does it hinge on finding the right staff?

Crider: It absolutely is because the greatest, it's so funny: “We're the government. And we're here to help.” And that is definitely an experience that I see with our families. And many of these families have also had negative experiences with school, they may not want the child to go back to school. And so we have to have deeper conversations, and it is about the right staff. Because at the end of the day, no matter what we're working on, whether it's truancy, or supporting families experiencing homelessness, it's all about relationships. And you have to have staff that know how to build those relationships. And that can build that empathy and trust. And so that is definitely key.

How does truancy directly tie into violence prevention?

Crider: So if you look at…I've done some work with the juvenile detention center at the JDC, if you look, in the case notes, or in the history of anyone that has been in that facility, truancy is always one of the very first red flags that goes up. All of the research shows that truancy is one of the first indicators that something is off, and something is going to not be a good outcome for that child. And so we've got to intervene early. The issue is that it's hard to measure. It's hard to document what didn't happen, or what you prevented. But the research does show that that's the way to do it.

Is there anything I haven't asked you so far that you want people to know about this program?

Crider: The one thing that should come alongside this program is, we also have to be thinking about the school environments. We're bringing these students back, so how are we supporting them? How are we providing the assistance that they need, and making school a place where those relationships and loving, warm, caring supporting environments are occurring so that they want to be there?

When implemented, Crider says the board will cover all 18 school districts in Peoria County. The office does already have a staff of family support specialists that knock on doors to check if children are going to school. The truancy board will supplement their work.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.