Ever since one of America's preeminent men of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, first played hooky from a private writing school, reportedly spending his fugitive hours playing on Boston Common, school officials across the United States having been fighting a never-ending battle against truancy.
Today, armed with a battery of new electronic aids, truant officers are beginning to empty swimming holes and video-game parlors nationwide.
In most cases they are doing so by targeting parents rather than students. A computer-dialing system now employed by 10 New York City high schools and three junior high schools began as a pilot project last year at a single school - Taft High School in the Bronx. Taft students had the lowest attendance record in the city.
The computer dials up to 450 phone numbers of long-term absentees, which attendance personnel have entered into its memory banks. Starting at 6:30 in the morning and going continuously until 10:00 at night, the ''attendance robot,'' as the kids call it, repeats in order the numbers until there is an answer, and delivers a short pre-recorded message concerning attendance.
The message surprised parents heard in the Bronx was: ''This is Mrs. Monroe, principal of Taft High School. We are notifying you that your child has not been reporting to school. It is our attempt to provide the finest possible education for your child. Please cooperate with us in this endeavor. Please call the attendance office as soon as possible.''
''I had no idea,'' says the mother of one teen-ager caught playing hooky. ''I never would have if it wasn't for that machine they have. It ended up calling here a couple of times. I got the message all right. So did Michael. You best believe he hasn't missed a day of school since.''
More than 200 schools districts from Arlington, Va., to Los Angeles will be using variations of the computerized truant officer this fall. Some of the computers tally absentees and write letters to the parents of those playing hooky. Other schools, like New York's, use humans to determine who is cutting classes, then let the computer make the calls. Some schools have gone as far as to employ computers to call parents whose children are not absent, but are perennially tardy.
In most instances, the use of automatic dialing machines is so new that their effectiveness is difficult to gauge. At Taft, for instance, attendance rose 10 percent shortly after the machine was installed and remained at that level throughout the school year, says Peter Engel, an assistant principal who helped oversee the project.
Few schools see high-tech hooky foilers as the end-all in combating truancy. ''If you don't attack the issue of why kids have stopped coming to school in the first place, you're not going to keep them once you get them back in class - if you get them back at all,'' says Angelo J. Aponte, executive director of the New York Board of Education's Division of Pupil Personnel Services. ''What we're really doing here is reestablishing contact with the parents to facilitate better communication between them and the school.''
As worrisome as the social costs of absenteeism are, there is another motivating factor for schools. State aid is tied to the number of students present, on average, throughout a given school year. New York City officials estimate that every percentage point of absenteeism translates into $10 million to $20 million in lost aid. In Dallas, estimates are that the same percentage point costs the school district an extra million dollars in state funding.