Parents take up role of fired truant officers

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One sunny morning in May, Rosa Guerrero, the mother of a Farragut High School graduate, grabs a couple of folders at the school and heads out to knock on neighborhood doors. She’s in search of truants. This day, she doesn’t have to go far.

Just across 24th Street from the school, she knocks on the door of a senior who has missed a total of 25 days of school and is failing three classes. To her surprise, the young man answers the door.

“I’m not in school because I have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon,” he tells her. Asked about all the other days, he points to his leg and the stitches that run down the length of it and says he’s suffering from a leg injury. He also says his medication makes it hard for him to focus in class.

Guerrero believes the boy, but stresses the importance of attending school. She then asks to speak to his father. In Spanish, she tells the man that if his son continues to miss school, he may not graduate. The father, who has been in Mexico, says that he was unaware of the absences but will make sure his son returns to school and stays there. Guerrero asks him to sign a form attesting to their conversation.

The following week, Guerrero happily reports the student is back in school.

‘Parents don’t know’

“A lot of times, the parents don’t know their kids are not going to school,” says Guerrero. “But once they do, most of them respond positively. In fact, when I make phone calls and write letters, I have parents come to the school to see me about their kids. So far, I have only had to make 20 home visits this year for hard-to-reach students.”

Guerrero is part of the School Board’s Truancy Outreach Program (TOP), which provides a total of $1.3 million to high schools to hire parents part time to call absent students, set up parent conferences and track down truants. The program was launched in 1996, four years after a previous School Board eliminated full-time truant officers to save $4 million and help close a $156 million budget gap. (See Catalyst, December 1992.) TOP parents are paid $8 an hour.

“It’s as effective as anything else we’re doing at Kelvyn Park, if not more,” says Louise Brennan, the TOPS coordinator at Kelvyn Park High. “I think the program needs to be expanded. I’ve been to meetings with colleagues from other schools, and there’s a need to expand the program because it’s effective.”

Program shrinking

The board reports that in 1997-98, TOP parents made an average of 278 phone calls, visited 44 homes and held 67 parent conferences every month. As a result, 7,000 truants returned to school, according to the board. Currently, 68 of the system’s 77 high schools participate in TOP.

Most schools Catalyst contacted complained that the board has cut funding. Until this school year, they say, they received enough money to employ four parents 20 hours a week; this year, they are able to pay only two parents to work 20 hours and one to work 10.

Ron Beavers, director of the Department of Truancy Prevention, says what schools are experiencing is the end of a one-time, 18-month grant from the federal Safe Schools Program. He adds that the board has increased its own funding of TOP from $875,000 in 1997-98 to $1.3 million for 1998-99.

“We made sure people knew up front how much money they were getting and how long they could run their program,” Beavers says. “Then we let schools decide how many people and how many hours. I know schools want more. When I was a principal, I said I needed more too. Still, at some schools, if we gave them a zillion dollars, they’d always want one more person.”

If schools are sold on the program, he adds, they should chip in some of their own money. “There has to be some kind of buy-in from schools,” he explains. “They have to have a stake in it. We can’t fulfill the total needs of the schools.”

That’s what Orr High School has done. “The borderline kids are the ones we catch,” says Assistant Principal David Meegan. “Those have been our successes.”

Orr’s attendance rate has increased each month since the program began, hitting a 10-year high in May. “The TOP program is just one of the factors that have helped,” says Meegan.

TOP’s reliance on parents has been key, schools report.

“Our TOP parents see other parents at grade pick-up,” notes Barbara Baier, the TOP coordinator at Flower High. “They know them from church or a [community policing] meeting. They know the kids because they live in the neighborhood.

“Our parents have freshman, and the kids we are targeting are freshman who are trying to test the boundaries early to see what they can get away with,” she adds. “TOP has helped us get the marginal kids back.”

Dortha Butler, the TOP coordinator at Fenger, concurs. “If kids can get away with it, they develop a pattern. Our parents stop that. They add that personal touch. If they see students in the hall, they tell them they are so glad to see them in school, and if they cut, a TOP parent steps in. It usually stops if we catch students that first year.”

Barbara Hall, the TOP coordinator at Dunbar High, adds, “Parents develop relationships with students. They do random checks on students to see if they are in class. Kids stop by to explain why they were gone a day or they’ll come in and say, I’m here today.’ Some students need that personal contact.”

While praising the program, schools also are quick to point out that it’s not a panacea.

Sessie Kelly, the attendance coordinator at Harper High, says that with more than 200 students who have missed at least 18 days of school, “it will take a lot more than [phone calls and visits].”

Beavers agrees, “This is not the total solution. It’s like the Titanic. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We can’t always retrieve students this way. We have to make the school environment attractive enough so that students want to be there. Maybe some changes will happen through the high school restructuring initiative.”