This truant officer really cares about attendance

On a gray, chilly, and dizzling day I approach the Annunciation Project here with James McSherry, a supervisor of attendance for the Boston Schools. The brick walls are scrawled with graffiti; many of the windows are smashed out; and some window frames are charred in apartments burned out by vandals.

As we enter a segment of the housing mass, we are greeted by a foul stench. The unlighted hallways lie grimy and littered.

Mr. McSherry knocks on the last door around a corner of the hall.

He is trying to locate a high school girl who is pregnant and has been absent from classes. He has no luck at this apartment.

The entrance next door is slightly open. He knocks and slowly pushes into a charred and empty room.

After checking several more apartments we discover that the pregnant girl's family has moved from the project.

Pregnant young women of any age are not required to attend school in Boston, and the usually drop out. McSherry wants to offer this girl an alternative. The Crittendon House offers instruction in prenatal care. Once she has delivered the child, this young mother may then return to her public high school.

"My work is challenging," McSherry says.

"I've gone into hornets' nests, where two of three men will offer to throw you out the window. But I find most people in this world try to do the right things.

Mr. McSherry sees sincerity as his vital defense; he seldom carries a gun.

"I am safe in Roxbury," he says, "because the decent people in the area know that I don't want to cause trouble, that I'm not there to arrest anyone. There are doors that I can knock on in these places and be taken in if I am seriously threatened."

At another case in another housing project we walk a set of steps to the second level. Some of the baise bricks in the walls are smudged or shattered. We knock and are admitted into a dimly lit apartment, where we talk with a woman whose son has been absent from school for more than a month now.

Mr. McSherry shatters the stereotypical adversary approach to counseling associated with truant officers. He operates as an ally. "He's a sensitive kid ," he says of the truant boy to his mother. "They like him a lot over at the school, and it's just a shame that he's been absent so much."

His work as a Boston supervisor of attendance also involves one day in court each week.

Although only about 1 out of 15 cases winds up in court, that one case might well be argued six times.

But before any case is brought to court "we use every avenue available to solve the problem outside of court," McSherry says. "We study the patterns of absence, we counsel, we use community agencies, and sometimes we can help through connections."

The cause of a student's absence does not always rest with the student. Mothers who are "closet drinkers" or suffer from loneliness sometimes keep their children home from school. Others are kept home to baby-sit or supplement the family income.

McSherry observed a pattern in one student's absences -- he was gone from school on the 15th and 30the of each month. Upon inquiry, he discovered the mother planted her son by their mailbox on those days so their welfare checks would not be stolen.

It's in cases like these -- when he feels a deep empathy for the family's plight -- that Mr. McSherry faces a conflict of conscience. If the necessity to stay home seems to outweigh the importance of being in school, he may not press charges.

"Where our work gets sticky is discovering people on welfare out grinding a few bucks," he says. "They can't let on that they are supplementing their income without losing some welfare. But when they send the children out working , that's wrong. Because the one who's being shortchanged is the child."

Once, visiting a truant student, Mr. McSherry inquired about the paintings that hung about the apartment. The boy explained they were his own. McSherry consulted a friend at the Massachusetts College of Art and arranged a scholarship there if the truant student attended his high school classes. The student responded, went through theart college, and continued with his artwork with such success that he and his family moved out of the oppressive tenement building in which they had lived.

This development was very satisfying to McSherry. Such successes make the rigors of his work fulfilling -- "that's when you feel good," he says. And then he concludes our time together:

"The purpose of our work is to ensure the child's right to an education."

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