Tool to keep kids in school - other kids' parents

With her fashionable jewelry and sleek chignon, Joanne Esquilin hardly fits the image of the no-nonsense truant officer. But when she works the tough neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, there's no doubt of her intent: to get every child she can back in the classroom, whatever it takes.

For Ms. Esquilin, an unflappable mother of three who once skipped school a few times herself, that means being part cheerleader, part cop, and part social worker. It also means working long nights and occasionally getting yelled at. Or worse.

Nonetheless, Ms. Esquilin and a band of other committed residents here are helping to chip away at one of the oldest problems in American education as part of unusual experiment - having parents themselves be truant officers.

The idea is that no one knows the problems facing kids and parents better than those who live in the neighborhoods. Nor are they likely to be intimidated by any resistance they come up against.

Every district, of course, uses a variety of methods to prevent unexcused absences in the classroom - from automated phone calls home to police sweeps of the streets. But a growing number of cities, like Philadelphia, are beginning to tap inner-city parents as a primary tool - with considerable success. They often prove more effective at uncovering the reasons behind truancy cases and finding whatever the child's family needs to get back to learning. "Every little problem they have, we find the resources," says Esquilin.

The use of parent truant officers is gaining broader appeal. Philadelphia School District CEO Paul Vallas brought the idea from Chicago, where truancy declined five out of the six years the program was in operation. Philadelphia, the nation's seventh-largest school system with 200,000 students, puts the program to test on another large scale: As many as 15,000 students are out each day without a valid excuse.

Already, the program, which began only in February, has helped boost attendance by 0.5 percent, about 400 students per day. And it has been so well received that the district is adding another 150 officers to the program's original 250. "We like the program," says Mr. Vallas, who adds that he hopes to bring attendance numbers up as much as 1 percent per year in the next four or five years.

The "infantry," as Vallas calls them, are charged with uncovering the reason behind each case of truancy - reasons which can range from an unstable home or lack of bus fare to a forgotten note from a parent lying at the bottom of a school bag. Help can be as simple as money for a school uniform, and as complex as addiction treatment for a parent.

Raised in similar circumstances, many Parent Truant Officers (PTOs) act more as mentors to parents whose sometimes-fractured lives can push school attendance far down the family priority list. The PTOs earn $9 per hour and work an average of 20 hours a week: days, nights, weekends - whatever it takes to connect with the truants' often unpredictable parents. The school district contracts for PTO services with a dozen local community organizations and religious groups, which in turn hire the officers from the neighborhood.

Working from a monthly list of children who have exceeded the maximum of three unexcused absences, PTOs like Joanne Esquilin first make a home visit to inform parents of their responsibility under Pennsylvania's compulsory education law. They also try to help parents and children understand why education is vital. They seek to determine why a child is missing school, and then figure out what is needed to help the parents obey the law.

Esquilin refers an estimated 50 to 75 percent of her cases for some kind of help. A child may need glasses. Interim shelter may have to be found. Sometimes she simply finds ways to help families stay warm.

Last winter, Esquilin met Vanessa Mercado, a single mother of two sons. Mercado's kindergartner was absent from school for two weeks. The family's apartment had no heat and Mercado was estranged from relatives who might have helped. Instead of going out into the sub-zero air, Mercado just kept the boys home. With Esquilin's help, the family has better housing this year. Mercado is studying for her GED and is job-hunting. Her sons are in school.

Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham shares Vallas's early intervention philosophy. She said that crimes by juveniles are not prosecuted by her office until age 10, but that early truancy intervention may identify and help younger children before cutting class and making trouble becomes a way of life. As for older kids, she said, some may be able to "bamboozle" their own parents but can't expect to have the same influence with a respected, neighborhood authority figure.

Esquilin recognizes many of her parents from her eight-year tenure as a sales clerk at a nearby clothing shop, and she brings her customer-friendly approach - not to mention her poise - to this job. She recalled a father who "went ballistic" when she showed up at his door. "I let him vent," she said, and before long, he had softened. "As I was leaving, he was saying 'God bless you.' "

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