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Programs Combat A Community Problem-Chronically Truant Students

What is the link among restricted driving privileges, enforced community service, and reduced welfare payments? These strategies are components of truancy-prevention programs in effect throughout the United States.

(Some changes may have occurred in these programs since this article first was published in 1998.)

Did you ever skip school for a day at the beach or a day of skiing? That activity was probably minor compared to the exploits of many chronically truant students today. Truancy has become a national problem.

And kids are not the only losers when they don't attend school or when they miss hours of school each day. Society loses as well. The federal At Risk Children Initiative, published in 1997, reported that

"Many police departments have found that rising daytime crime can be traced, in part, to truancy. In Van Nuys, California, a three-week truancy sweep resulted in a 60 percent reduction in shoplifting arrests. In St. Paul, Minnesota, crimes such as purse snatching dropped by almost 50 percent after police began picking up truants and taking them to a new school attendance center."

Local approaches to the problem of school attendance take several forms.

  • In Boston, Massachusetts, latecomers are locked out of school.
  • In Virginia, some driving privileges may be restricted.
  • In Chester, Pennsylvania, community service is required for truants.
  • In New York City, welfare payments are cut for families of truants.
  • In Chicago, Illinois, telephone hotlines allow citizens to report truant students.
  • In California, grants worth millions of dollars aid communities in their efforts to improve attendance and reduce truancy.

Because truancy is a societal problem, most truancy reduction programs are community-based. School systems, police and probation departments, welfare departments, and other social service agencies are teaming up to get kids back in school.

COMMUNITY SERVICE IN CHESTER

A program piloted in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1998, recognized that fining parents is often not enough to change the behavior of truant youths. Instead, the program requires community service of participating students. "This is a step to facilitate education, not penalize a family," Gwendolyn Miller, district attendance supervisor of the Chester Upland School District, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in a January 1998 news story.

Parents could be fined $300 plus court costs.

The program focuses on getting the students back in school instead of financially penalizing their families -- many of whom do not have the money to pay.

The Chester Upland district has seen a decline in truancy rates during the past few years -- average attendance was about 80 percent in 1998. The small number of students with "long-standing truancy problems" in this new program will be carefully followed. They will each perform about nine hours of community service, and if students over age 13 fail to show up for community service they will be assigned to an alternative service program for juvenile offenders.

"This signals to the community that the county and the court system care about the children of Chester," Dexter Davis, a Chester Upland assistant superintendent told the Inquirer. "You can have the greatest school program in the world, but it doesn't mean anything if the children are not there."

LETTERS IN LOS ANGELES

How would you react to a letter threatening legal action and possible prosecution? The Los Angeles District Attorney's office sends letters to the parents of truant students. The letters threaten the parents with criminal prosecution unless they attend a school meeting. The strategy seems to be working because attendance improved in almost 80 percent of the cases.

This program was designed to get the attention of parents -- and it did. But some parents of children with chronic health conditions (and resulting erratic attendance patterns) have complained of harassment. Even in large systems, officials must understand the necessity of gathering relevant information before threatening action where it is not appropriate -- attendance figures of students do not always tell the entire story. Likewise, parents should not overreact, but explain the problem and appreciate that the student's interests are being addressed with good intent.

WELFARE CUTS IN NEW YORK

In September 1997, the New York Times reported that three city schools would be among the first in the state to pilot a learnfare program. By law, the program would extend to all schools in the state by September 1999. The article described the state law:

"...If a child missed five or more days of school in a three-month academic quarter 'without good cause,' the social services agency is required to cut welfare benefits for that child's household. The law applies to children in first through sixth grades."

According to the article, "Critics have asserted that the policy punishes children for their parents' failure to get them to school. Supporters defend it as a route out of welfare for children who are encouraged to stay in school."

SMART IN COLUMBUS

Schools in Columbus, Ohio, instituted a program called SMART -- Student Mediation and Assistance to Reduce Truancy -- to speed up action in truancy cases. The program requires that families of chronic truants must meet with school officials and members of the County Juvenile Court's Protective Services Department. Officials use the meetings to determine why the student(s) are not attending school and to make parents aware of their responsibilities.

Family problems, which surface at the meetings, are addressed and parents are referred to helping agencies when appropriate.

SMART appears to be working. Most cases have been resolved before court proceedings had to be instituted. "We feel strongly that at the elementary school level it is the parents' responsibility to get the child to school," Nancy Catena, administrator of Protective Services, told the Columbus Dispatch. SMART helps them meet that responsibility.

TRUANCY-PREVENTION GRANTS IN CALIFORNIA

In June 1997, the California Department of Education awarded $10 million in grant money to local education agencies for truancy prevention and public safety programs. The Targeted Truancy and Public Safety Demonstration Grant Program aimed "...to develop ways to identify these youths before they become repeat offenders, and to provide them with the preventive and corrective treatment to keep them in school and out of trouble. We want to help these students learn the personal and academic skills to do well in later life."

The programs were collaborations between schools, probation departments, and law enforcement and social service agencies.

TRUANCY HOTLINE IN CHICAGO

In Chicago, public school officials are attacking truancy by combining "systemwide efforts, local initiatives, and improved programs for at-risk youth." The policy included an automated calling system that contacted homes of truant students and a 24-hour truancy hotline which citizens can use to report truant students. According to a 1996 press release, the primary problem was at the high school level. The Chicago Public Schools program also

  • proposed restructuring high schools to make them more responsive to the needs of students.
  • held school staff members (principals, teachers and the administration) accountable for helping to improve student attendance.
  • involved parents in a Truancy Outreach Program, which will operate in all high schools. (A team of four high school parents and the school's attendance coordinator work directly with truant students and their parents.)
  • teamed the schools with the Chicago Housing Authority "...to encourage Housing Authority residents to have their children in school regularly."
  • encouraged the Illinois Department of Public Aid "...to enforce the current law which allows welfare checks to be withheld from parents who have been cited for allowing their children to be truant."

LOCKED DOORS IN BOSTON

How can students learn the importance of punctuality, of attending school for the entire day -- especially the beginning of the day? Some high schools in Boston are making the point by locking school doors in a controversial program that targets latecomers.

"This school year, dozens of students at 11 Boston high schools are being shut out every day as officials refuse to tolerate tardiness," reported the Boston Globe in 1998. "The effort has dramatically increased punctuality, but students, police, and those who work with truants have begun complaining the policy is forcing students onto the streets when they should be in school."

Some school officials believed this was the best method of getting the message to students that tardiness is not acceptable. But some students felt that the lockout was too severe. Some community members and police officers agreed because students who cannot get into their schools were on the streets all day.

AN ADDITIONAL TRUANCY LINK

  • Truancy: First Step to a Lifetime of Problems by Eileen M. Garry is a bulletin of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention describing successful truancy-prevention programs throughout the country. The bulletin includes statistics for large cities. Also included are summaries of the following programs: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma-THRIVE; Neosho County, Kansas-At School, On Time, Ready to Work; Atlantic County, New Jersey -Project Helping Hand; St. Paul, Minnesota-Ramsay County Truancy and Curfew Violation Center; Kern County, California-Truancy Reduction Program; Maricopa County, Arizona-Save Kids Partnership; and Roswell, New Mexico-Roswell Daily Curfew Program. Contact information for each program is available.

    Article by Gary Hopkins
    Education World® Editor-in-Chief
    Copyright © 2005 Education World

    Originally published 03/23/1998; updated 09/07/2005