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Bounty Hunters

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

Donna Bronson and Marie Ekenberg are the Central Linn school district's designated bounty hunters. The two earn $1,000 for each student they bring back to the classroom. But there's one catch: The students they round up must go on to finish school.

So rather than sneak up and ambush students, these modern-day bounty hunters—or "learning opportunity coordinators," as some Central Linn officials like to call them—must exercise the power of persuasion. "It's a sales job," says Ekenberg, who traded her district job as a cafeteria worker to pursue disaffected teenagers. Each day, she and Bronson scan enrollment lists for names of students who aren't in class but haven't transferred. They nab most truants, however, through word of mouth.

The district pays the pair $100 per student and another $100 if he or she signs a contract to complete school. The free-lancers then 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.

Since the program began last March, the 49 truants they've targeted are in school or have earned a diploma. The truancy rate in the 840-student district has been cut in half.

Research shows that truants—students chronically absent from school without an excuse—are more likely than others to drop out altogether. And dropouts are more likely to earn less and be unemployed and on welfare than students with a high school diploma.

Although kids skip school for dozens of reasons, most are truant because they are failing academically. Others leave because they become ill or must work to help support their families.

No national data on truancy exist, but in some big cities thousands of students cut school each day. In Pittsburgh, more than 3,500 students—or 12 percent of the district enrollment—are absent daily, and about 70 percent are unexcused, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report.

Some states and districts have adopted tough anti-truancy strategies such as fining parents. Others have enlisted law-enforcement agencies to help pursue students. But punitive measures go only so far. Most states compel kids to attend school only until age 16, so most who quit in their junior or senior year are not violating the law. With these students, experts say, persuasion may be the most powerful tool.

Central Linn superintendent John Dallum says that's what his district's bounty scheme is all about: enticing students back and working with them to stay. The students don't necessarily have to re-enroll in high school. Some can enlist in a community college and design their own schedules. To help those who must work during the day, the district hires tutors. "Everybody is a potential graduate," Dallum says. "You've just got to show these kids that they want something that you've got."

Eighteen-year-old Cory Mar-kle quit Central Linn High School for two years because, she says, "I didn't like all the rules." She returned when the district sold her on an individualized package of classes. "They adjust to your needs and help you," says Markle, who plans to graduate in April.

The kids aren't the only ones who gain; there's also a financial incentive for the district. Central Linn receives $4,800 from the state for each student who completes the school year. The school system pays $1,000 to Bronson and Ekenberg for each student and several hundred dollars for tutors and supplies. The rest goes to the district. "That's not just good education, it's good business," Dallum says.

Still, the program has critics who argue 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," says David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. Fidanque worries that these independent agents could become overzealous in their methods and that schools could be held liable.

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

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