A former Department of Children and Families (DCF) juvenile parole officer, East Haven Public Schools Truancy Officer Dan Montesi now uses his experience, contacts, and his access to programs, to help get kids into school and know school is a safe place.
Dan, hired by the DCF right out of college, worked in that role for more than 20 years. He retired in his 40s.
“When I was getting ready to retire, I saw a need for, in the school system, somebody that had knowledge of the juvenile justice system [and] DCF,” Dan says.
Having been involved in athletics, including being an All-State football and baseball player growing up in West Haven, Dan says he draws on that background as he’s developed relationships with hundreds of kids throughout his career.
His position is supported by a grant from the Connecticut Department of Education’s Alliance District program, which supports the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts. The state encourages those school districts to focus on truancy and chronic absenteeism rates, and prioritizes hiring individuals to reduce chronic absenteeism and deal with truancy issues.
“Luckily Dan walked through our doors with his diverse experiences and his magnitude of connections in order to support the effort,” says Acting Superintendent of Schools Erica Forti.
Four years ago, the position was part-time, but was expanded to a full-time position after a year as Dan started working with more schools, students, principals, and teachers. His goal is to connect families with resources in the community to help get their kids to school every day and on time. He now works in all the town’s elementary schools, also helping with older students as needed.
Once families with chronic truancy issues are identified, Dan sends out letters and makes contact with those families to see if there is anything the district can do to help. He focuses on issues that include transportation and other services, along with bullying and other behavioral issues. Dan says it gave him an opportunity to see what was going on with those families, and to help the families feel comfortable knowing the district was there to help them as well, not just the student.
“I think once I gained the trust of a lot of the families and the word of mouth starting spreading, the program just hit it off,” Dan says.
Attendance is connected to school credits, and unexcused absences can lead to students losing credit for a course even if they pass it.
“We employed Dan to help work with families at the lower levels in the elementary schools so we can start supporting and setting guidelines and be proactive, rather than waiting until they’re in high school and being reactive because they’ve lost credit,” Forti says.
When he started, Dan helped streamline the processes and procedures for how attendance was taken when the PowerSchool information system was introduced.
Dan says he works with students on a case-by-case basis, often using programs and contacts from his previous career. For example, if there’s an anxiety issue preventing a student coming to school, Dan can speak with the family members and refer them to places like Yale Child Study Center and connect them with the school psychologist and social workers to help address the problem.
Dan will also talk with parents at the district’s family night and tells them the attendance expectations: Be at school every day and on time, and if not, call and let them know.
“If we see a pattern of kids that are missing consistently, we’re calling, we’re knocking on doors, we’re having the families come in, and again, it’s nothing punitive, it’s just to let the families know that we as a district are here, and I have access to the programs that can help these families out,” Dan says.
Dan says the support and access he’s gotten from the district has been great. Forti says he’s grown the program. He’s cross-referenced his truancy data with academic performance data, and says a correlation can be seen in attendance and performance on internal and statewide assessments.
Tracking them for the past four years, Dan knows every kid in the district with a history of truancy. Drawing on his experience in the juvenile justice system, he says he can explain to parents how it starts, and where it ends up.
A Truancy Task Force is being established though which school staff will come in to discuss matters with a student, so everyone at the table is in a comfortable, face-to-face setting. Outside providers will also be coming in, and Dan says it’s a way to help identify potentially truant kids.
Dan says he loves the role he’s in, and says it’s important to teach kids when they’re young that attendance is important, and it’s safe to speak to those in the schools if there’s a problem. While he offers as much support as he can, Dan says families unfortunately don’t take it sometimes, but he’s there when they’d like to talk.
Dan says he rides buses, he’s at the bus stop, and he sticks around after school as well—“I show my face so they know that I’m there to help,” Dan says, “Every child that we can save to get here every day, and know that school is a safe place, and we’re to help, that’s the main thing.”