Dozens of middle school students from Montgomery County, Maryland, were in a Rockville courtroom this week but not for a trial. Instead, they were attending a celebration.
The 49 students were among the successful graduates of the county’s Truancy Prevention Program. The initiative is designed to help middle school students who’ve missed between 18-36 days of school get back to class and back on track.
One of the proud graduates was 12-year-old Jaelynn Parada, a sixth-grade student at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring.
Parada missed more than a month of school when her family went to visit her ailing grandfather in El Salvador earlier this year. While abroad, her mom, Juana Arias, tried to keep Jaelynn connected to her classwork, but the lack of reliable internet service made that impossible.
When she returned to school, Parada was referred to the Truancy Prevention Program, a collaborative effort between the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Montgomery County Public School system.
Parada was shocked to see how much she had missed and how her grades had been affected by her absence. But she was open to getting the help the program provided.
“It helped me focus more,” she said. Parada realized that she was getting good advice, “And I would do better in school if I took that advice,” she explained in an interview with WTOP.
Parada was paired with tutors who worked with her teachers to help make up her work and track her progress. Asked which subject proved the biggest challenge, Parada said, “English!” but with the assistance of her tutors, “I like it — kind of — more than I used to.”
Parada said that students were back to in-person instruction this year in school, which made catching up less daunting.
“It’s easier to learn in person than it is online,” she said. “Instead of leaving the computer and putting my head down, I would try to complete the work. If I couldn’t, then I would go ask for help.”
During the graduation ceremony, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy drew a correlation to truancy and the crimes he sees committed by young people. He explained that during investigations into cases involving juveniles, long absences from school is a common thread.
The goal of the Truancy Prevention Program, he told the audience, is to get students reengaged with school and on the road to a brighter future.
“Education is the key to a better life. That’s the message here.” McCarthy told the students. “I hope you come back to this courthouse again. Not through the side door, but through the front door” as law clerks, or attorneys.
“I’m very proud of the students who are here today,” McCarthy said.
Arias said she was eager to team up with her daughter’s teachers and tutors in the Truancy Prevention Program. She urges parents to reach out to their schools for help when needed.
“Some parents don’t like it, but I like it because the thing is — you need to know how your kid is,” she told WTOP.
The graduation celebration came as a surprise to Parada’s father, Arias said. When they headed to the courthouse in Rockville, he was clearly puzzled. Then he saw cameras and a large crowd of students and their families in the courtroom. Arias said when he saw Parada get up to speak in front of the audience, “He was crying and he was excited.”
Parada said she’ll take the lessons learned in the program to her future studies.
One day, she said, she’d like to be a professional soccer player.
“My dad played soccer, my sisters played soccer, my grandfather played soccer,” she said. Her sister earned an athletic scholarship to James Madison University playing the sport, something Parada would like to work toward herself.
Arias said the program demonstrated to Parada that she could achieve her goals and that, “When she wants to, she can do it!”