Get out of the Pacific Ocean and back into school!

Sunshine makes southern California high school campuses warm and comfortable during lunch break. But not as nice as the beach where many a high school student can be found on any given schoolday. Since California, like most of the other states, disburses funds to local school districts based on student attendance, school principals here in San Diego are taking a harder look at what some attest is their major problem.

Unexcused absenteeism -- absence due to nonmedical reasons -- babysitting a younger sibling, family vacations, oversleeping, court appearances, household disturbances, and just plain truancy cost the schools a great deal of money. In 1978-79, for example, the San Diego Unified District estimated their loss at approximately $3 million due to 115,000 unauthorized absences of high school students. Of the three high schools with highest truancy percentage rates, two were from beach area schools.

A San Diego task force examining student attendance patterns found:

* The unexcused absence rate increases as the grade level increases.

* Students in accelerated or "reward" classes are absent less than students with no such "special" classes.

* Bus riders are absent less than walkers or drivers.

* A direct and significant correlation exists between absences of teachers and their students.

* More absences occur on Mondays and Fridays than during the middle of the week.

* Parents tend to permit their children to stay home all day rather than to send them to school late.

* Old children in a family set attendance patterns for younger siblings.

So schools are mobilizing. Plans have been innovative --even radical.

One school has a competitive buddy system where students with attendance problems are paired and given the responsibility of getting their "pair" to attend class.

Alarm clocks given to children whose parents both work has been successful at another school.

A third school operates a wake-up system using student volunteers to make early-morning calls.

Causing the most stir is an incentive plan in which junior high students are credited 25 cents for every full day of attendance. At the end of every month, students can redeem their credit for school supplies, book debts, entrance fees to school activities, combination locks, crafts materials, and yearbooks. In order for this plan to offset the loss of state funds (approximately $9 a day), this school will have to improve its attendance record by 25 percent.

Causing less of a public stir at 18 schools is a program involving much individual attention and positive reinforcement for the student with a history of absenteeism.

Project Succeed, funded through ESAA (Emergency School Aid Act which supplies federal funds to address integration issues), provides additional school personnel to counsel truant students and their parents.

Students in the project carry a daily report form to be signed by each of their teachers. The cards ask the teacher whether the student was on time to class, is keeping up with assignments, is using class time productively, and whether the student's work is improving.

In this program, the student gets an hourly assessment, intended as an hourly reinforcement. At the end of the day, students must take their cards to a counselor who takes notice of every detail of their school lives.

Barbara Hicklin, project counselor at one high school says, "All too often no one stops to say 'I care' to these students. But that's my primary responsibility. I don't ask a lot of questions. I'm paid to listen, to pour out a lot of praise when they go to class or when a teacher records a positive daily evaluation -- and to talk turkey when they don't."

Daily reinforcement is only one component of Project Succeed. In addition, parents are always involved. After counseling the parent, project staff issue a contract that is signed by the student, his or her parents, and the school.

Whenever the student is absent from even one class, the parent is contacted within 24 hours. A staff member makes phone calls well into the evening so that there is immediate feedback.

Such structured personal caring and immediate response seems to be working. According to counselor Anne Hitt of Madison High School where Project Succeed has been operating for three years, "Fifty percent of the students on the project significantly changed their behavior. Grades as well as attendanc e and attitude improve markedly."

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