Published Online: February 26, 2003
Published in Print: February 26, 2003, as Urban Education


Urban Education

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Parent to Parent

When Charlene Samuels pays a visit to Philadelphia families whose children have skipped school, she's not there to wag her finger. She's there to support and teach.

Ms. Samuels is one of the city's new parent truant officers, but she doesn't nab the wayward youngsters. That's handled by the police. Her job is to offer information, help, and even empathy.

"It's a way for me to reach parents and empower them," said Ms. Samuels, herself the mother of two city schoolchildren. "I stress to them the importance of sending their kids to school, and build the relationship between the parents and the school."

Philadelphia has good reason to call on its parents to help curb truancy. On any given day, 12 percent of the district's 200,000 students are absent from school, and half those absences are unexcused, said Vern Trent, the director of the district's office of specialized services, which monitors truancy.

So when Paul G. Vallas took over as the school system's chief executive officer last July, he added parents to a program that already engaged school staff members and police to find truants. He did the same thing as the district CEO in Chicago, and it helped cut the truancy rate there, he said.

"These parents can be very effective, because they have faced many of the same challenges as the families of the truant kids," Mr. Vallas said.

So far, 166 parents—including a few grandparents—have made 3,000 calls and visits, said Delia Reveron, the district's coordinator for attendance and truancy. Officials envision that, fully staffed, the $1.2 million program would employ 250 such officers.

Participants receive four days of training from one of 12 contracted social service agencies and must withstand criminal-background checks, Ms. Reveron said. They work at least 10 hours a week, at $9 an hour.

Contrary to stereotype, a truant child often can be set back on the school-going track by solving simple problems, said Ms. Samuels.

One mother of four, home on disability, can't always drive her children to school, so Ms. Samuels is working with the district to obtain free public-transportation tokens for them. In another case, an alarm clock fixed the problem for a child whose mother had to leave before dawn for work.

Not only do the parent truant officers troubleshoot and offer information, they also put a human face on the system.

"As parents, they bring a certain degree of empathy and understanding," Mr. Trent said. "They are a caring part of the continuum."

—Catherine Gewertz

Vol. 22, Issue 24, Page 9

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