A New Approach to Reengaging Kids with Education: Upstream Support & Connections, Not Courtrooms

Think “truancy,” and you may think of kids going to court for skipping school. But in King County this work has taken a significant turn for the better in the past decade. The King County Education Reengagement Team (KCERT) is transforming reengagement work by moving resources upstream to help address the barriers that are keeping kids out of school so that fewer young people ever see a courtroom. They are committed to increasing opportunities for youth by promoting school attendance and preventing school dropout by addressing barriers in a holistic way.

KCERT is comprised of the King County Superior Court Becca Team and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Education Reengagement Team (PAO Team). The Becca Team and judicial officers hold both districts and families accountable to work towards educational goals for each student. The PAO Team includes Sammie Alizadeh, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, and Lorena Villa, Legal Administrative Specialist. Together, the KCERT works in collaboration with King County School Districts, students/families, and community partners to provide reengagement supports for opportunity youth and their families.

“We strive to be intentional by providing individualized and culturally relevant resources to youth that are disengaged from their education. We not only try to serve the whole youth, but also provide any needed supports for their families.” — Sammie

“We like to give students a vision, not a task. Within every student there’s a different story to what causes unexcused absences, and our team is here to help identify and eliminate those barriers to see how we can best support students/families and their futures” — Lorena Villa

The Transformation: Tiered Approach and Reengagement Workshops Instead of Court Hearings

In 2008, King County Superior Court was running multiple court rooms for truancy hearings with more than approximately 50% of the kids who had a truancy petition coming to court. Back then, a petition would be filed by the school district, as required by statute, and a hearing would typically then be set before a judicial officer.

And, of course, if kids were in court — they weren’t in school.

“The message was ‘go to school’ without much more than that, and we all know that just telling a kid to go to school without identifying their goals and supporting them in getting there, isn’t going to work.” Sammie

Contrast that against the 2018–2019 school year, where of 1796 truancy petitions filed by King County School Districts (as they are required to do by statute), less than 4% of kids were ordered to court before a judicial officer. And of the 4% of kids who came to court, many had been on petition the year before and still weren’t engaging with the supplemental community-based supports offered to them. The goal in King County has become to make hearings before a judge the last resort.

Over the years, the KCERT has focused on creating tiered supports which include, but are not limited to, conferences, collaboration with community partners, and the implementation of reengagement workshops.

Education & Reengagement Workshop at Redmond Community Center. Credit: Unleash the Brilliance

It also has been more effective: identifying what keeps kids out of school — whether that’s a mental health challenge, substance use, unidentified learning difference, pushout, or lack of a positive mentor — and supporting students in overcoming those challenges works far better than a blanket directive from a judge in most cases. This approach also helps address concerns that may be outside the scope or ability of the individual school or district.

This transformation took place thanks to the partnerships the PAO built with community-based organizations who offer workshops that aim to address the barriers that keep kids out of school. In 2010, our office partnered with Terrell Dorsey, President/CEO/Founder of Unleash the Brilliance (UTB), to reduce the number of cases that go into a courtroom for truancy. Since then, the UTB workshops have been one of the first offerings for students and families. The workshops have also evolved over the last decade to the point where the PAO now only helps with coordination, interpreter services, and invitations, but the communication and workshops themselves are completely facilitated and run by the community provider and youth leaders.

Lake Washington School District Education & Reengagement Workshop. Credit: Unleash the Brilliance

“We get connected to teens through the education and reengagement workshops, and the goal is to plant a seed that students can harvest later. A seed of inspiration, hope, and best practices,” said Terrell. “Our youth presenters are so close in age to the kids in these workshops, they can say with conviction ‘I was just there, if I hadn’t embraced the philosophy of think, plan, fly I wouldn’t be in a position where I can help out my family, to have confidence and feel good about myself.’”

For the past two years, the PAO has also entered into a new partnership with SafeFutures Youth Center, which offers Latinx workshops to better serve Spanish speaking families and provide a culturally relevant approach to education reengagement.

SafeFutures Poster. Credit: SafeFutures

“We have a couple Latinx case managers who have been working in the community for a long time. We’ve heard a lot of youth and families frustrated about the school system not being catered to the BIPOC culture, it was difficult to navigate, not explained well, and they didn’t even understand the concept of truancy. So we come with that community perspective,” said Daniel Rhee, Program Manager with SafeFutures. “It was really cool what the PAO and Sammie were trying to do to make the workshops more accessible to Latinx youth and families. We saw the need and were glad to jump in.”

Reducing the Role of the Judge & Traditional Legal System, while Increasing the Role of Community

“Going in front of a judge is the Education & Reengagement Team’s last resort. We help facilitate meetings with community providers in order to help connect youth to peer connectors, youth advocates, and supplemental supports; we hold conferences between families and school districts to help come up with solutions to create an environment where our young people can thrive academically.” — Sammie

In 2020, the PAO opened the workshops to all students in middle school and high school regardless of whether a truancy petition was filed. While unexcused absences from remote learning cannot accrue for purposes of a truancy petition this school year, many students and families were and still are experiencing barriers to attendance and asked for support.

Education & Reengagement Workshop at Renton Technical College. Credit: Unleash the Brilliance

The KCERT is also moving even further upstream with supports and connections, with the launch of King County Community Attendance & Support Team (CAST). This team offers more comprehensive pre-filing supports for all aged students and their families to identify and eliminate barriers to school attendance. The CAST is made up of members representing community agencies that provide a variety of opportunities and resources to youth and families and is coordinated by the King County Superior Court Becca Team in collaboration with the PAO’s Education and Reengagement Team. CAST is available everywhere in King County and students and families can also make a referral for a CAST meeting to get the support they need.

“CAST is a great way to focus more time on the individual needs of families that get referred by providing resources and building relationships before a petition is required to be filed.” Lorena Villa

Imagining the Future

Our goal is to continue to position all these resources — CAST, the workshops, and other supplemental services — earlier in the reengagement process regardless of if a petition is filed. Right now, the funding for much of this work at the school, county, and state level is linked to the number of petitions being filed — but there is a growing movement across our state to address the funding barriers that currently preclude upstream pre-petition interventions to take place. The KCERT hopes to eventually evolve their process into a referral model where students, caregivers, and districts can all refer and have equal access to the various supports they need.

My hope is that we can continue to increase collaboration and advocate for more sustainably funded community-based resources so that youth have everything that they need to thrive. My vision is that we cultivate an accessible process that not only helps close the achievement gap, but that inspires youth who feel holistically supported to reengage with their education so that the system will eventually not be needed.” — Sammie