Town Puts $300 Price On Heads of Truants

Mark Jones was in high school last year when his girlfriend became pregnant. So he left Central Linn High and found a minimum-wage job to support his family.

But in this rural community, dropouts and truants carry a price on their heads. When Donna Bronson and Marie Ekenberg found Mark (not his real name) this fall, they had a contract in hand: If he returned to school, they would help him, and the school would pay Ms. Bronson and Ms. Ekenberg $300. They would get another $200 for monitoring his progress and a $500 bonus if he earned his diploma.

Bronson and Ekenberg call themselves "learning opportunity coordinators." Students call them bounty hunters. Paying cash rewards to catch kids playing hooky - or dropping out - is clearly one of the most unconventional approaches to solving an enduring nationwide problem. While critics say programs like these invite abuse, bounty hunting has cut the Central Linn School District truancy rate in half.

There are no solid national statistics but studies show truancy is an early indicator of a likely dropout. They also show direct links between truancy and daytime crime rates. Analysts say efforts to combat the problem have increased significantly over the last five years, signaling both a rise in occurrence and growing awareness of its consequences.

Students may be truant for several reasons, says Bill Modzeleski of the US Department of Education - failure in school, gang involvement, drug problems, illness, or work. Effective programs often combine the efforts of school administrators and law enforcement, and a few states even have laws allowing them to punish the parents of perpetual truants.

But punitive measures aren't enough, says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States. The core challenge is engaging students in school. For Central Linn District Superintendent John Dallum, that isn't hard. "I have not yet met a student that doesn't want to succeed," he says.

With that premise in mind, Superintendent Dallum hired Bronson and Ekenberg last March to bring wayward students back to the fold. There is a financial incentive as well: The state adds some $4,800 to his schools' budgets for every student who finishes the year. Even though it can cost up to $1,000 per recovered truant or dropout, Dallum figures bounty hunting could actually make money for the school. "This is not only good education, it is good business," he says.

The American Civil Liberties Union isn't sure though. It opposes government programs that rely on incentives for financial gain. Dave Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU's Oregon branch, says financial incentives can encourage abuse. "If this work is important - and I think it is - people should be put on salary to do it."

Bronson and Ekenburg, who are eking out a living wage, work from a list of "early leavers" - students who aren't in the system and haven't transferred. They also go by word of mouth. "We bring them the contract, we provide the tutoring, and we even provide the food - or hook them up with programs that do," says Bronson. Since March the program has reclaimed 42 students, one of whom is in her late 30s.

Both women know the frustrations of what they call "one-size-fits-all" education. Ekenberg's daughter and one of Bronson's sons are among the 42 enrolled in the program.

Many observers question whether similar programs could be adopted in other school districts. While he wouldn't speculate, Dallum emphasizes that community support is essential to the program in his 820-student district. "We've had 100 percent parental support," confirms Ekenberg.

Four years ago, the district's dropout rate was equal to or above the statewide average, says Dallum. Now it's half that. "I always wanted to come back," says one student who reenrolled after a year. Since last summer four of his classmates have earned their diplomas. He will join four more to graduate in January.

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