Putting Out a Contract on Truants

In Rhode Island, one principal tells would- be dropouts to shape up -- or just leave

TRENT Danella is putting out a contract on students in his school. But he hopes it will save a few lives rather than take them.

Mr. Danella, who is the principal of West Warwick High School, is combatting truancy. For six months, he has been scouring the transcripts of his 1,050 students looking for flunkers, troublemakers, and chronic truants who are not likely to graduate.

One by one, he summons them to his small office with concrete walls and gives them two options: Either sign a contract promising to improve or pack up your locker and leave.

For kids in this blue-collar town on the Pawtuxet River, it can be a choice between a middle-class life in a shady suburb or a life in the nearby mills.

''We're making an admission here that a lot of people aren't willing to make: That a high school diploma is not in the future of every kid,'' Danella says.

While his approach is unusual, Danella's ''contract'' is emblematic of a drive under way in communities nationwide to rescue more of the nearly 5 percent of American students who drop out of school each year.

Much at stake

Its outcome will have an impact on the level of crime, drug abuse, and poverty in America in years to come and will help determine how well the country's work force competes in the world economy.

By any measure, dropouts face stiff challenges. The unemployment rate for kids who quit high school is 70 percent higher than for those who graduate, according to a recent Labor Department survey. This study also showed that high school graduates will earn $861,000 in their lifetime -- 30 percent more than dropouts.

A 1994 California study found that of 1,400 dropouts in Anaheim and Oakland, one-third were involved in a gang, 18 percent had children, 40 percent had sold drugs, and 16 percent had committed a crime to get drugs. Only 25 percent had jobs.

With this in mind, schools have begun improving their programs in the attempt to make staying in school more attractive.

This approach has spawned counselors for at-risk students, in-school child care, antidrug programs, and alternative learning environments -- many of which are funded by Congress.

But in the last few months, as the prospect of federal funding cuts increases, more school districts are reaching out to local authorities in efforts to add teeth to their programs.

Truants in Monrovia, Calif., can have their driver's licenses suspended and be required to perform community service. In Maine, truants under the age of 16 cannot get a work permit.

A Houston program dispatches volunteers to the homes of absent students. And school officials in Bellevue, Wash., have begun to fine parents $25 every time their child cuts classes.

While Danella calls such efforts ''a good start,'' he says they don't go far enough. Forcing children to come to school, he says, only burdens teachers with rowdy pupils and takes school resources away from the kids who want to learn.

''Most of these programs offer all kinds of carrots, incentives to the kids to do better, but there's no hammer,'' he says. ''We allow them to drift aimlessly with little or no pressure to make a decision. Unless there is some serious intervention on our part, these students are basically just being warehoused.''

Enter the contract. If an at-risk student and his parents sign the document, Danella provides the student full access to private tutors, summer school, social workers, drug-rehabilitation programs, and day care. But if they don't sign, Danella refers the student to a job-training program and petitions for their expulsion. ''What we're saying to these kids is 'you're not an infant anymore, you're not a juvenile,'' he says. ''You're an adult and it's about time you started to make some decisions.''

So far, Danella says, about half of the 25 students he has approached have opted to quit. While Danella says he has not followed up on any of the dropouts, he says he feels confident that his ultimatum forced them to start looking for steady work.

No consensus

But not everyone agrees with Danella's hard-nosed tactics.

''Kids who have a sense of belonging to the community do better in school,'' says Jean O'Neil, director of research at the National Crime Prevention Council. According to Ms. O'Neil, schools should work to detect problems early and step in quickly to solve them, even if that intervention puts them in a child's living room at 7 a.m.

''Truancy is usually a sign of something wrong with the family,'' she says. ''When a kid doesn't show up at school, we need to send people out to bang on the door.... If a kid needs shoes, we should get him shoes. We need to give these kids the feeling that the community cares about them.''

But back in his office, Danella props a pair of glasses on the tip of his nose and reads from the report card of a student he calls ''John.''

On Jan. 29, when John was summoned to the principal's office, he had skipped 36 days, was flunking every class except math, and had been suspended eight times. As a junior, John had only five of the 20 credits he will need to graduate. Flipping ahead to his recent midterm reports, Danella points out that John is now passing five of seven classes and has only skipped three days.

''We don't expect that after a month a student's absenteeism will go from 25 to 0,'' Danella says. ''We don't expect that four failures will become four A's. We don't expect that your discipline problems will cease. But if you show signs of improvement, we will stick with you for another quarter.''

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