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Rights Group, Schools Work To Cut Absenteeism Rates

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Lowering rates of student absenteeism is the goal of new projects begun by a number of school districts and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The naacp last month launched a $150,000 nationwide program, "Back to School ... Stay in School," with a breakdancing concert in New York City's Harlem area. Between dance routines by young people done to the tunes of the Pointer Sisters and Michael Jackson, school officials gave speeches on the importance of staying in school.

Targeted Areas

The organization hopes to lower absenteeism rates in targeted areas of the nation, including New York's five boroughs. There, according to the New York City Board of Education, an average of 150,000 students out of a total of 950,000 are absent from school on any given day.

The other targeted areas include Atlanta, Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, Dallas, Kansas City, Mo., and Memphis. Doris Mason, director of the group's youth and college division, said those are not necessarily the cities with the greatest absentee problems but are where the naacp has some of its strongest branches.

Ms. Mason said the program will emphasize rewards as well as support for students. In each city, a coordinator will be appointed by the school system to inform the naacp of the students who have achieved perfect attendance for the year. A special awards ceremony will be held to honor those students. The naacp also hopes to work with the schools to create after-school care centers for students in grades kindergarten through 12.

"We hope this will provide supervised learning and relaxation, and in this way encourage participation," she said. She said some of the centers may be set up in churches and naacp branch offices.

$1.1 Million Earmarked

In Washington, D.C., where the daily elementary- and secondary-school absentee rate for 1983-84 was 11 percent, $1.1 million has been earmarked for a project to increase attendance. Marilyn Brown, assistant superintendent for the District of Columbia school system, said that beginning this week, 19 attendance counselors and five social workers will be added to the district's high schools and career counseling centers.

The money will also be used to fund a truant center, Ms. Brown said, which will offer up to a week of intensive counseling for students with unexcused absences.

"It's a matter of trying to find out why a student is absent," Ms. Brown said. "It might be clothes, it might be home problems. We'll sit down as a team with the parents and try to work it out."

School officials also plan to install a computerized phone system in the district's 28 junior high schools and 12 high schools to alert parents when their children are late or miss a day of class. The system, being adopted in a growing number of school districts, continues calling the parent until someone answers; one computer can call around 380 homes a day, Ms. Brown said.

Tickets to see the singer Michael Jackson also figured in the district's plans to emphasize attendance. A local radio station donated 60 tickets to local Jackson concerts to the school system; they were awarded to students who had maintained perfect attendance records for a minimum of four consecutive years since the 6th grade.

Dropout Program

In Chicago, where the absentee rate hovers around 10 percent, a $129,000 program for dropouts ages 16 through 21 will begin this month in two of the city's public-housing projects.

Philip Viso, assistant superintendent of vocational and career education for the Chicago public schools, said teachers will be assigned to the housing projects to teach about 200 students for two hours every day in space provided by the projects' management.

A local businessmen's association, working with the school district, will hire the pupils to work another four hours each day. The students will be paid at least minimum wage, and the jobs will depend on the student's skills, Mr. Viso said.

Early Intervention

In Minneapolis, a rise in truancy citations last year among students sparked the development of an early-intervention program in the district's junior high schools aimed at catching truants before they cross the line into juvenile deliquency.

Judge Allen Oleisky, who presides in the city's juvenile court and is one of the developers of the program, said a survey conducted several years ago in Hennepin County, in which Minneapolis is located, showed that the vast majority of juveniles who appear in court as adults had their first contact with the courts as truants.

The program will focus on Minneapolis schools, Judge Oleisky said, because although the city school district enrolls only 39 percent of the county's youth population, it accounts for two-thirds of its truants. Some 1,300 students, 825 of whom were from Minneapolis, were cited for truancy last year, he noted.

Under state law, chronic truants can be prosecuted in the juvenile courts. Beginning this week, a truant officer will be placed in each of the city's six junior high schools specifically to deal with the truancy problem; others will be assigned to two elementary schools to work with 4th- through 6th-grade students. The program will not extend to the high schools because under Minnesota law education is compulsory only to age 16.

Special court liaison aides will also work in the two junior high schools with the highest truancy rates. The liaison officer will act as a type of probation officer for a student after he or she is cited for truancy and appears in court, Judge Oleisky said. Truancy citations are usually made after a student has seven unexcused absences in a semester.

The experimental program will be funded by a $130,000 federal grant through the Community Development Block Grant program and $30,000 in county funds.

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