CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The little girl knew she was sick. Placing a hand on the student's forehead, Piedmont Elementary School Attendance Officer Cindy McCorkle did, too.
But the child told McCorkle she would rather lie down at school than have her mom take her home.
"I like school; I don't want to go home," McCorkle remembered her saying.
McCorkle, 58, said she never would have refused an offer to go home when she was in school.
But she realizes what the homes of some Piedmont students are like.
She has seen the houses with no water service, and even those with no power. She has had children tell her, "Daddy cut Mommy with a knife last night."
She has seen children burst into tears as they dread leaving for the three-week breaks that follow nine-week terms at the year-round school. She knows that the students who live in shelters worry less about homework and more about whether they're going to move that night.
Most students don't have those problems, she said.
But attendance officers don't work with most students. And they certainly do more than take roll.
"My job is to make sure these children are here, they're safe and they're happy," McCorkle said.
For the last eight or nine years that job has begun every morning about 7:15 at the school on Charleston's East End.
One recent day was typical as students received a smile, wave or hello from McCorkle as they entered the building.
A grin spread across one little girl's face after McCorkle asked if she had done her homework. The girl opened a folder, showed McCorkle some papers and ran off.
Other children approached McCorkle to talk about family and friends. Some just wanted a hug. One excited sandy-haired boy ran over as McCorkle was speaking with another adult. He put a finger to a tooth and exclaimed, "I've got a wiggler!"
Close by were student artwork, a massive fish tank and a magazine rack with brochures discussing domestic violence and truancy.
To understand why a child isn't coming to school, you must understand the child, McCorkle said.
The vast majority of students are ready for class on time. She chides those who aren't, telling them to hurry off before the tardy bell rings at 7:40. Every student arriving at school after that time needs to check in at the table she sets up in front of the office.
She writes down the time and names, most all too familiar. She also notes whether the child takes the pancake on a stick, fruit, yogurt, juice and cereal breakfast made available for all.
McCorkle doesn't ask why the student is late. She usually already knows.
Sometimes she hears from other parents. Sometimes she hears from the students themselves. Frequently she hears from the school counselor.
Like most attendance officers, McCorkle is a certified social worker herself. She has a master's degree in school counseling, and worked in the mental health field before coming to Piedmont. The experience helps McCorkle get to the bottom of a truancy problem and try to fix it.
McCorkle explained that problems sometimes surface as behavioral issues.
Teachers will send students to her office with notes saying a child is having a rough day or is misbehaving. If McCorkle can figure out what's bothering a student, she generally can keep the youngster from getting into further trouble.
"If they can't keep their behavior under control and they get suspended, that means they have unexcused absences," McCorkle said.
Three unexcused absences means a warning letter to parents. Five means a legal notice requesting a meeting between parent and school within 10 days. Absences after that meeting can lead to court, referral to Child Protective Services, fines or even jail time for the parent.
No one wants that, McCorkle said.
"I feel like I've failed when I have to go to court," she said.
Tardies also harmful