Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007 | Little fanfare met the opening of a new drop-off point for school-skippers this week on the shuttered campus of Gompers High School. It was an oddly quiet step in a high-stakes saga that has split the San Diego Unified School Board: How to reel truant kids — and the attendance dollars that follow them — back into class.

Now, instead of dropping students off directly at their schools, police who scoop up truants will ferry them to the new Attendance Intervention Center, where social workers will suss out why students are missing class, and what services they need to get back on track.

Out of School, Out of Cash

  • The Issue: San Diego schools just opened a truancy center to better serve kids found skipping school, but critics say existing policies aren’t consistently enforced to reach the kids who don’t get caught.
  • What It Means: Truancy costs the district money from the state, which doles out cash based on how many students attend each day. Schools gain $5,786 per year for each student who attends every day.
  • The Bigger Picture: At the district’s current 96.4 percent attendance rate, San Diego schools lose almost $25 million each year. The new center will help reach some students, but gaps in the system could let some students slip through the cracks — and cost schools money.

But while the center promises new attention for the kids once they’ve been caught on the streets, critics say schools aren’t enforcing basic measures to check on absent students, leaving police and the AIC to play catch-up. Meanwhile, the police sweeps that pull truants into the AIC are netting fewer students, as kids get wise to the game.

The problem has dogged schools, especially as the lengthy check-up process for absent kids falls to fewer staff members. Though truancy sweeps have delivered dozens of students back to school, said Andreas Trakus, vice principal of Hoover High School, follow-up has often been scant.

“You as a vice principal would try to intake these kids, and there are 100 other things to do,” he said. “Unless you had absolutely nothing else going on, it’s hard to sit down and find out: What’s going on with this kid?”

That’s the advantage of the AIC over shuttling kids back to school, said Edward Caballero, an administrator in the Office of the Associate Superintendent. Counselors and social workers will interview truants to figure out why they’re skipping school, telephone their parents for pickup, and teachers coach them in English and math while they wait.

“It’s not a detention center,” said Caballero, sitting on a bench at the newly-opened center. “We’re trying to figure out what they need — anything from simple childcare to family counseling to academic help.”

Board members had grappled this year over where to house the center. Trustee John de Beck pushed for a location in southeast San Diego. Others advocated for a central San Diego site, and ultimately won. The Gompers site is only temporary: Renovations have tied up the center’s planned home in Mission Valley, near the crossing of I-8 and 805. Caballero estimated that the center would relocate in November.

The truancy center was one of only three items disputed by the board when reviewing this year’s budget in June. But the board quickly scuttled its threat to reject the budget when district accountants claimed they couldn’t update the document before the statewide July 1 budget deadline. (In Los Angeles schools, last-minute budget questions didn’t pose the same problem.) AIC was approved, if not wholly embraced.

Few dispute the center’s benefits — for students, or for school coffers. Running the center will cost San Diego schools $393,500 a year, the district has estimated. But if attendance soars, money will pour back into the district. If 60 students are corralled back into San Diego classrooms each day, that adds up to $394,000 a year in “average daily attendance” money, the funds doled out by the state for each child who attends class.

Ultimately, the center aims to nudge the district’s 96.4 percent attendance rate, as measured this September, up to 100 percent, and to focus its efforts on schools with sagging attendance, such as Roosevelt Middle School, which reported a 93.1 attendance rate in 2006.

But the system is still deviled with problems, parents and teachers note. Long before police catch students ditching school, schools are charged with calling home, checking in, and keeping track of student absences. That hasn’t happened consistently, said Dorothy Zirkle, director of community and school programs with Price Charities. Zirkle is a member of the City Heights Initiative Anti-Violence Task Force, which commissioned a local study on truancy prevention.

“The gap is enforcement,” Zirkle said. “We don’t want to point any fingers, but we’ve found a real variety of practices happening at individual schools. … Each school basically has its own system for contacting families, and most don’t have enough attendance workers to actually follow up.”

For instance, 49 students at Monroe Clark Middle School were absent for at least 15 percent of school days between September 2006 and February 2007, yet were never referred to the School Attendance Review Board, a joint school-community panel that acts as the district’s main enforcement tool for truancy, the draft report found. Some were never even sent letters. Students are supposed to be sent before the board if they continue to skip school after six unexcused absences, according to district policy. But policy hasn’t translated into practice, Zirkle lamented.

“These are all things you need bodies to do,” she said, “and our schools don’t have the money to sustain those efforts.”

At Morse High School, teacher Elizabeth Ahlgren has seen attendance duties fall to an administrator, instead of a specially assigned attendance coordinator. That job was cut, she said.

District-wide, “they’ve radically cut clerical functions” such as attendance, said Jo-Ellen Archer, first vice president of California School Employees Association Chapter 788, which represents office employees in the technical and business services. “If they reconsidered [those cuts,] I think attendance would be high on the list.”

Trakus said Hoover High has avoided cuts in attendance clerks, but the task still overwhelms school staff.

“In a school like Hoover, the responsibilities of an attendance clerk are massive. We have four or five people, and they’re overwhelmed,” he said.

Teachers count attendance using a computer program called Zangle. But the program isn’t well-suited to identifying truant kids, Trakus said — a criticism echoed in the AVTF’s draft report, which deemed Zangle “not best suited to facilitating and supporting aggressive truancy prevention.”

The problems cited by Trakus and Ahlgren aren’t new: In 2002, the county grand jury found that truancy enforcement varied wildly between schools countywide, undercutting their success. And many cases never make it to the next step after the attendance review board, the district attorney or city attorney offices, ATVF’s report found. Neither office will hear truancy cases based on tardies or skipped classes — only full-day absences. That means that though the district attorney charged 344 truants this year, far more might be charged if the standards were altered.

To speed up truancy notification, San Diego schools are piloting a computerized system that telephones parents, notifying them of child absences, emergencies or other announcements. The program, Connect-Ed, can dial hundreds of parents within minutes, unlike telephone auto-dialers that call one number at a time. San Diego schools are spending the bulk of this year’s Annie E. Casey Foundation “Every Day Counts” grant on the technology, said Jennie Breister, grant coordinator. Connect-Ed is now used in 49 San Diego schools, and has been adopted by more than half of California schools, including Los Angeles Unified schools, said Breister.

Parents at pilot schools have raved about the Connect-Ed messages, Breister said.

“We can get to parents early enough to make a difference,” she said. “We can send messages in their home language. … Principals can record their own message,” as did an Edison Elementary principal who speaks only limited Spanish, Breister said. Her carefully rehearsed Spanish messages won accolades from parents, who were pleased by the outreach, she said. “It’s a very powerful parent outreach tool … and it’ll allow our attendance clerks more time for face-to-face contact.”

But one truancy expert cautioned against pegging hopes for upped attendance to a computerized system. Connect-Ed and similar systems are “not considered terribly effective” in reducing truancy, said Dr. Krystina Finlay, senior research analyst for the Colorado-based National Center for School Engagement.

“Often, the calls don’t reach the parent,” either due to an inaccurate phone number, or a student erasing the message, said Finlay. “You don’t really know if you’ve reached the parent or not, and you can’t tell whether or not the parent is taking it seriously. An automated call is much less expensive, but it’ll also be less effective.”

Breister agreed with Finlay, in part. Accurate data entry is Connect-Ed’s Achilles’ heel, she said.

“It all originates from the data,” Breister said. “It’s only as good as what’s put into Zangle.”

With the opening of the AIC, there’s new emphasis on addressing the kids who get caught. Zirkle has spotted them at a City Heights fast food restaurant, hanging out in the canyons, even strolling down the street “in broad daylight, with their school lanyards on. You think you’ve seen it all!”

But fewer kids are getting caught, Caballero said, as kids rapidly learn which areas to avoid. “Very few” students were found in the district’s last sweep, he said — but police did snap up a gun, he added. Near Hoover High, sweeps netted only 13 teens last week, compared to more than 40 in a single sweep last fall, Trakus said.

“Kids talk, and word gets around fast,” Trakus said. “The real challenge is finding a good piece of quality time, to sit down and connect with that kid.”

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