Monday, March 21, 2011

Responding to truancy?

What, if anything, should Utah Valley communities do to combat school truancy?

The Provo Municipal Council has been considering a daytime curfew, making truancy -- skipping school -- a criminal offense. It formed a task force to study the issue. Within 24 hours, nearly 40 people signed up to take part. That may indicate some depth of concern, or perhaps the level of opposition.

Local authorities believe that enforcement is key to keeping young people from going off on the wrong track. A daytime curfew is designed to jolt parents and kids alike.

Yet the idea presents problems. Home-school parents and kids protest mightily that police can't tell the difference between kids skipping school and kids who are getting a better education outside the restraints of the public school system.

Besides, many argue, making truancy a criminal offense is extreme.

Out of Provo's 15,000 students, 2,000 have received a letter dealing with potential truancy concerns, but a lot of those letters deal with trivial matters like tardies. Only about 200 cases have been referred to juvenile court.

So perhaps heavy-handed truancy enforcement is a remedy looking for a problem.

Officials worry that truancy often translates into ruined lives. We would challenge that. Is truancy the cause of troubled lives? Probably not. It is a symptom.

Some education experts assert that 75 percent of chronically truant students will end up being high school dropouts. No surprise there. Being a dropout correlates to crime, poverty and other social problems. But correlation does not prove the cause.

In the Nebo School District, with about twice the number of students as in Provo, between 300 and 400 are in truancy prevention programs. About 85 kids will attend court.

Is that a large enough number to warrant heavy enforcement? And will enforcement save kids from their failing families? Probably not.

An alternative for Nebo District is the attendance court program. It tries to get the school, students and parents to work together to improve attendance and grades.

In the Alpine School District, out of 66,000 students, 136 students were seen in juvenile court last year for habitual truancy; 263 were referred to truancy school last year. Offered by the district in the evenings, it gives parents and students classes taught by a police officer.

School resource officers in each high school play a big role, Alpine officials say. Other places have tried a variety of steps, some of them eye opening.

Maybe technology can help. Districts across the country have instituted robo-calls exhorting students to get up and get to class. In other places, parents get automatic text messages if their children fail to show up at school.

Some districts have tried the upbeat approach. New York City has tried a program called WakeUP NYC. Automated calls from sports and entertainment celebrities are meant to get students motivated.

So imagine the phone ringing, and a kid who doesn't want to go to school picks it up and hears a taped message from a basketball legend: "Morning! It's me, Magic Johnson here. I won five NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal, so I'm calling the shots today. Get up out of bed, into school, try hard, do well."

Here the kid rolls over and goes back to sleep.

Other places are trying a tougher approach. Schools in cities such as Dallas, Anaheim, Calif., and Baltimore, Md., have tried having habitual truants put on GPS devices.

Will that solve problems in their home lives? Doubtful. But authorities can now track down those cutting class. And it gives teenagers a way to repel peer pressure: "Hey, I'd like to hang out, but with this thing on, I can't go anywhere with the cops finding me." We suppose, also, that gang members and other punks don't want to hang out with someone being so closely monitored by The Man.

When San Antonio tried such a program, grades improved and the attendance rate hit 97 percent for students in the program.

So there are ways to force kids to sit in a chair. We're not convinced that addresses their individual needs so much as it addresses a school district's need for seat time, since that's the way they get funding.

Civil libertarians have objected to the "Big Brother" aspects of the GPS program.

A more personal approach has been offered in more than 200 districts nationwide. That seems more promising. Check And Connect pairs up students with professional, full-time mentors. Among the mentors' tasks is checking on students' attendance.

Yet for all these efforts, some students are not reached. This brings up the question: Should they be in school in the first place? Provo School District is extremely reluctant to expel students for truancy. And in Utah education is compulsory.

Is it time to question the basic premise?

If a teenager is adamant about not going to school, there may be little to keep him or her there. Why not move them into trade programs and get them working?

Hard-core truants are unlikely to be gaining much even when forced to sit in a chair. The time and energy required to drag them into school may not be worth it.

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