Student Well-Being

Districts Tackling Truancy With New Zeal

By John Gehring — September 21, 2004 6 min read
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Claudia Betancourt woke up one day to Houston’s superintendent of schools, a state senator, and a crew of news reporters knocking on her door. The 21-year-old had stopped showing up for classes at Furr High School, but school leaders hadn’t forgotten about her.

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They wanted her back. And they offered child care, clothing vouchers, and a part-time job to make that possible.

While unusual in its high-profile approach, Houston’s aggressive outreach effort reflects a growing urgency among district and state leaders nationwide in combating truancy. The push is being driven in part by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools and districts to improve academic performance or face sanctions. Ensuring that students show up for school is essential, educators note, to improving academic performance. Many states are using attendance rates as one factor in determining whether schools are making adequate progress under the law.

The adults at Ms. Betancourt’s door early that Saturday morning in August were part of a 400-person cadre that fanned out across the city, knocking on doors at 600 homes of students identified as truants. That afternoon, 41 students came back and signed up for school.

“They said they were going to make sure I graduated,” said Ms. Betancourt, the mother of an infant and a toddler, who stopped attending school this past spring because she believed she couldn’t return to high school after turning 21. “I was very happy they came. If they didn’t, I probably would have just stayed home watching my kids and working at McDonald’s or Burger King.”

The 210,000-student Houston Independent School District expects its outreach campaign to draw more than 100 students back to class. “If they won’t come to us,” explained Roberta Cusak, the district’s director of student engagement, “we will go to them.”

‘Serious Issue’

The U.S. Department of Education plans to spotlight the problem of absenteeism and habitual truancy at a conference in December for educators and juvenile-justice officials.

“The department sees this as a serious issue,” said Bill Modzeleski, the associate deputy undersecretary for the department’s safe and drug-free schools office. “If students are not in school, they are not learning and engaging.”

Many urban districts-which face high dropout rates and shrinking pots of state aid based, in part, on daily student-attendance figures-are on the move.

The 723,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has launched a campaign to improve attendance in a system where some 30,000 middle and high school students miss school on an average day.

This past summer, the Los Angeles school board voted to change district policy to allow teachers to begin linking grades with attendance. School leaders also are beefing up their partnerships with community organizations to address truancy.

The Baltimore public schools have teamed up with the city police department, the mayor’s office, and juvenile-justice and social-services agencies to create a truancy assessment center.

In Philadelphia, more than 150 parents have been trained as truant officers to visit homes and talk to families where students have missed class. Chief Executive Officer Paul G. Vallas added parents to the mix of school staff members and police who work with truants when he arrived in the city two years ago from Chicago, where the same approach helped cut the truancy rate in half. (“Parent to Parent,” Urban Education, Feb. 26, 2003.)

Districts also are working with law-enforcement officials to crack down on parents whose children skip school.

Administrators in the 93,000-student Jefferson County public schools in Kentucky, which includes Louisville, gave the names of habitually truant students to the county attorney. This month, 38 parents were charged with allowing their children to miss school and face jail time or fines.

Since the Jefferson County district began working with the county attorney’s office in 1999 to prosecute parents, the district has reduced the number of habitual truants from 716 that year to 126 last year.

“The state truancy law has been on the books for a while,” said Stephen Harrison, the district’s director of pupil personnel. “But now parents see there is some bite to it.”

Jay Smink, the executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, based at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., said several factors are driving districts to pay more attention to truants. While school districts and states define chronic truancy differently, students who fail to attend school without an excused absence are regarded as truant.

With the increased federal demand for accountability comes a renewed awareness that what educators call “time on task” pays academic benefits, he said.

“When administrators look at all of these issues, they come back and say, ‘We have an attendance problem,’ ” said Mr. Smink, whose center recently received a grant from the South Carolina education department to begin studying effective strategies for reducing truancy. “So you’re looking at this big push on attendance and truancy.”

More State Aid

Marlene Canter, the vice president of the Los Angeles Unified school board, said her district’s campaign to improve student attendance comes down to common sense. “We have a huge achievement issue in our schools, and there are a lot of ways we need to address this issue. You can develop strategies for student achievement, but you have to have the kids there.”

In Los Angeles, about 14 percent of the district’s middle and high school students are considered “chronic truants,” defined as those who have 25 or more days of unexcused absences. Among other steps, the district is working with the city attorney’s office to get the message on school attendance out early.

Sixth graders and their parents attend assemblies where they learn about the consequences of truancy, and attendance counselors are available.

District leaders, Ms. Canter added, have another pragmatic reason for focusing on truancy. If Los Angeles increased daily attendance across all grades by just 2 percent, she said, that would add up to about $60 million in extra state aid. In an era of budget crunches, every dollar counts.

State policymakers are not ignoring truancy, either.

Joseph B. Morton, the state schools superintendent in Alabama, pushed for the state board of education there to adopt a truancy policy that would require parents to explain a student’s absence in writing. After seven unexcused absences during the school year, parents and students could be taken to court.

The state board, which had previously allowed districts to handle truancy policies, unanimously approved the resolution on Sept. 9.

“Sometimes, the obvious is the hardest issue to initiate and complete,” Mr. Morton said. “If students are not in school, it’s difficult for them to learn.”

Nettie Legters, a research scientist at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, applauded efforts like Houston’s to reach out to truants. But districts can’t stop there, she said.

“Personal relationships might get them back to school,” she said, “but there has to be stuff going on in school that engages them and provides them with opportunities to be successful academically and socially.”

Houston school leaders devised follow-up plans for Claudia Betancourt and other students who returned after the campaign. Ms. Betancourt now works with special education teacher Patricia Saucier as she completes classes in computers, economics, and government.

“She will graduate in May,” Ms. Saucier said. “I’m just glad we were able to get her back.”

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