Meet the new truancy officers: mom and pop

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"We don't know where the students are on any given day," says Lynn Dixon, an English teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School in Philadelphia, where a quarter of students sometimes fail to show up for class. "We just know they're not here."

Truancy continues to be a huge problem across the United States, particularly in large urban school districts. But with the accountability measures introduced by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, truancy has taken on a new urgency: Students' low attendance rates translate into lower test scores, which affect a school's overall rating.

In response, Paul Vallas, chief executive of Philadelphia's school system, has made truancy reduction one of his top priorities. Beginning this month, Mr. Vallas will hire about 250 parents to track down truants in their own communities.

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Philadelphia has a 6 percent absentee rate - about 12,500 students missing from class each day. In certain neighborhoods, high school absentee rates rose above 25 percent during September.

Vallas tested his new approach with about 600 parents in Chicago when he was head of schools there. He sees parents as especially effective at this work because they know their own neighborhoods and the families living there.

Truancy in Chicago dropped to 3.9 percent from 5.7 percent after the program was established, Vallas says.

It's difficult to get any nationwide data on truancy, as most record-keeping is local. The Colorado Foundation for Families and Children reports that some metropolitan areas have thousands of unexcused absences every day. Between 1985 and 1994, the group notes, the number of truancy court cases nationwide increased by two-thirds.

"It's really becoming a hot issue in education," says Ramona Gonzales, research and policy analyst for the Denver-based foundation.

Truancy is not a just an educational problem but a societal one, Ms. Gonzales says. Chronic truancy is often a predictor of criminal behavior or a need for welfare. Daytime crime also tends to increase in areas with high truancy rates.

Philadelphia has made efforts to tackle this problem before. The city has truancy courts and, until the 1990s, regularly employed truancy officers.

In the mid-90s, the city eliminated those positions and began relying on automated phone calls to the homes of truant students.

Many of the students, however, considered the calls a joke. Since parents were often working during the day, the calls were taken by answering machines, making it easy for kids to erase the warning message before their parents returned home.

Some parents who did not speak English couldn't understand the messages even when they did receive them. And there were stories of occasional malfunctions, when the phone system would make calls in the middle of the night, angering families rather than enlisting their support.

The drive to use parents to round up absent students is projected to cost about $1.2 million this year and $2.5 million in the years to come, as the number of parents employed increases to about 500. They will earn $8 to $10 an hour for 20 to 30 hours a week and will be trained by community and faith-based organizations.

The parent-workers will visit the families of truant students (those who are absent at least three times without an excuse). If a household problem appears to be contributing to the truancy, the workers will try to connect the family with appropriate social services.

No school district has found the silver bullet. Some choose to work closely with the courts. Others believe the solutions need to be school based.

In recent years, several districts - including Milwaukee; Rochester, N.Y.; Dayton County, Fla.; and Bristol, Conn. - have begun fining parents for their children's unexcused absences.

The most successful programs tend to be ones that link chronically truant students with a caring adult, Gonzales says. Reengaging troubled students with their schools also helps reduce the problem.

Along those lines, Philadelphia plans to require students who are absent 10 or more times to attend an after-school program. It's designed to offer academic support, but it will be mandatory even for students with high grades.

Although Gonzales says she's not familiar with Vallas's Chicago experiment, she applauds him for bringing Philadelphia parents into the battle against truancy.

But Ms. Dixon, who is in the classroom every day, has her doubts. While she appreciates Vallas's initiative, she wonders if such a grass-roots approach can succeed in Philadelphia.

"Theoretically it sounds nice," she says. "But how will it work? Will these parents call the other parents? This is not Beaver Cleaver-ville here, where the parents all have a great sense of camaraderie."

Dixon does hope, though, that contacting parents of chronically absent students is the first step toward a long-term solution.

"The problem begins at home and ends at home," she says. "It's not just attendance, it's an attitude."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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