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Ore. District Bounty Hunters Out To Bag Truants

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School officials in a rural district 20 miles north of Eugene, Ore., have found a new way to lure truants back into the classroom: They put a price on their heads.

Donna Bronson and Marie Ekenberg, the Central Linn school district's "learning opportunity coordinators," earn $1,000 for each student they catch who finishes school.

But these modern-day bounty hunters aren't ambushing students from behind rocks. Nor do they ride horses and use lassos to hunt down and subdue the elusive truants. Instead, they exercise their powers of persuasion.

"It's a sales job," said Ms. Ekenberg, who traded her district post as a cafeteria worker to pursue disaffected teenagers after her daughter started skipping school. Ms. Ekenberg scans lists of students each day who aren't in class but haven't transferred. Mostly, though, she and her partner catch young people by word of mouth.

The district pays the pair $100 jointly per student and another $100 if the truant signs a contract to complete school. The freelancers get an extra $300 for monitoring the student's academic progress and a $500 bonus when the student earns a diploma or a General Educational Development credential.

So far, the results have been encouraging. Since the program began last March, the 49 truants they targeted are in school or have earned a diploma. And the overall truancy rate in the 840-student district has been halved.

Good Investment

Research has shown that truants--students chronically absent from school without an excuse--are more likely than other students to drop out altogether. And dropouts are more likely to be on welfare, unemployed, and earn less than students with a high school diploma, according to federal surveys.

Although there are dozens of different reasons for skipping school, most students are truant because they are failing academically, according to dropout-prevention experts. Others leave because they become ill or must work to help support their families.

No national data on the extent of truancy exist, but in some big-city districts unexcused absences can soar into the thousands each day. In Pittsburgh, for example, more than 3,500 students--or 12 percent of the student population--are absent daily and about 70 percent of the absences are unexcused, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report.

States and districts have begun to adopt tougher anti-truancy strategies, such as fining parents, in an attempt to draw wayward students back to school. Some states have enlisted law-enforcement agencies in aggressive searches for students.

Most states, however, compel youths to attend school only until age 16, thereby missing the many students who tend to quit school in their junior and senior years, dropout-prevention experts say.

With that in mind, some education experts maintain that the most effective programs incorporate not just punitive measures, but ones that focus on sustaining student interest in school.

A Tailored Package

John Dallum, the superintendent of the Central Linn district, said his alternative-education program is designed to do just that--once the bounty hunters entice students back and work with them to stay in school.

Students can enlist in a community college and design their own schedules. To help them do their classwork at home at night, the district also hires tutors for students who work during the day.

"Everybody is a potential graduate," Mr. Dallum said. "You've just got to show these kids that they want something that you've got."

Cory Markle, 18, quit Central Linn High School for two years because she "didn't like all the rules." For her, the individualized package of classes was a selling point. "They adjust to your needs and help you," said Ms. Markle, who plans to graduate in April.

There's also a financial benefit. The district receives $4,800 from the state for each student who completes the school year. And the school system pays out $1,000 for each former truant who earns a diploma. The district also pays several hundred dollars extra for tutors and supplies."That's not just good education, it's good business," Mr. Dallum said.

But some critics contend that paying people to retrieve truants could lead to abuse."A bounty system gives a person working on a contract an incentive for there to be a continuing truancy problem, so they can keep making money," said David Fidanque, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

Mr. Fidanque said that these independent agents could become overzealous in their retrieval methods and that schools could be held liable.

But Mr. Dallum said that he trusts his employees and refuses to let the fear of lawsuits stifle his efforts. "I suppose I do carry some liability," he said. "But I'm not worried to the point that we are going to stop securing these kids."

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