Getting Truants Back to School 

Oakland Unified, which loses millions each year to absenteeism, has a new, two-pronged strategy: Round up the offspring, and go after the parents.

It's 2:43 on a Friday afternoon at Oakland's Rene C. Davidson Courthouse, and Marida Mallet is seriously tardy.

Her court date, one of several she's had this year, was slated for two o'clock. The mother was supposed to appear before Judge Kenneth Burr to answer for her first-grade daughter's chronic absenteeism -- of the 152 school days that had elapsed by the time Mallet's case landed on the desk of Deputy District Attorney Teresa Drenick, the girl had attended only 39 to completion.

Today mom is the absentee, missing out on what certainly would have been a lenient hearing. Judge Burr, a fatherly presence with a moustache and curly salt-and-pepper hair, cuts her nearly 45 minutes of slack before moving ahead with the proceedings. "Have you heard from Ms. Mallet?" he asks.

"No, I have not," Drenick replies. "Not since she was here last month."

"Well," the judge says, "that makes it easy."

In a way, Ms. Mallet is fortunate -- had she not been representing herself, she likely would have been tried in absentia. Instead, Burr issues a warrant for her arrest, and holds her trial over for a later date. "This is so unusual," Drenick later says of the mother's absence. "We have almost forty adults in this program, and it almost never comes to this."

She's referring to a recent drive by the Oakland Unified School District to fight what has consistently been one of its biggest problems -- chronic absenteeism. This September marks the first anniversary of a districtwide, multimillion-dollar effort to combat truancy, a problem that cost Oakland Unified an estimated $3.5 million in the last year alone. Last year, the district began referring cases to the district attorney, who informed parents they'd be prosecuted if they didn't shape up. This year, Oakland Unified is upping the ante by physically removing truant kids from the streets, and having the cops bring them to the Lowell Annex in West Oakland, a sort of prison-for-truants that can hold up to one hundred ne'er-do-wells. This new program is called OTAP, or Oakland Truancy and Attendance Program, and its benefits for the district are twofold: First, truant kids are identified and swept off the streets. Second, on paper at least, it's as though they were never absent.

This last point is crucial, especially for a cash-strapped district such as Oakland Unified. School districts are funded in part based on a formula called Average Daily Attendance, which pays according to how many students actually show up to class. "The dollar amount last year was $27.77 per student per day," says Stevan Alvarado, coordinator for attendance support at Oakland Unified. "If a student came for all 182 days of the school year, that comes out to $5,054 per student per year."

Faced with crippliIng budget shortfalls, Oakland has begun rethinking its lax approach. After a third unexcused absence or significant tardiness, students are supposed to meet with a review team. If the problem continues, a district Student Attendance Review Board gets involved, tries to identify any underlying problems, and makes parents sign a contract saying they'll get their kid to school on time. If the parents don't comply, they get a date with Judge Burr.

Before last year, that seldom happened. Now, even with the DA involved, too many students have missed too many days. According to Alvarado, roughly $2.5 million of the $3.5 million the district lost last year to absenteeism was due to students with more than ten unexcused absences. "That's a conservative estimate," he adds.

So when OTAP kicks in next month, kids from grades six through twelve found playing hooky will be rounded up. The kids are off the streets, and the schools get their money. Problem solved, right?

Hardly. The district's efforts still lack teeth. Consider the court mediation program: Parents who violate the review board's orders are referred to deputy prosecutor Drenick, who sends out a letter ordering them to appear in court. If the parents miss their court date, they get another letter giving them a week to reschedule. Only when they miss that date is a warrant issued for their arrest.

Meanwhile, nothing is being done to directly address the child's absences. "By the time a case winds its way through the school and the district, and they decide they can't do anything about it, I'm looking at kids who have missed fifty, sixty, sometimes a hundred days of school already," Drenick says.

The parents who draw Drenick's ire are required to pay a fine, which is usually suspended, and must work an hour a week at the child's school. They also have to show up in court for periodic "progress reports."

It is hard to overestimate the consequences of chronic absenteeism, which Drenick calls "the number one indicator of kids who are going to end up as juvenile offenders -- more than race, more than socioeconomics." Crime statistics support her claim -- 1,326 new felons and parole violators from Alameda County entered prison last year. Their average reading level: seventh grade.

Drenick says that of the almost forty parents in the mediation program, only two have failed to turn it around. But the program's scope is decidedly limited, dealing only with elementary- and middle-school kids who don't have any criminal issues apart from truancy. "It's an early intervention program, so it works best at the elementary level," Alvarado acknowledges. "You get more parental involvement, and you reinforce the message that you have to have students in attendance."

Yet the biggest problems exist at the high school level, and while early intervention is no longer an option, locking up the kids amounts to little more than a Band-Aid solution. Why not expand Drenick's court mediation to high school? Actually, Alvarado says, there will be a test run of the mediation program this year involving two high schools -- McClymonds and Castlemont -- where no fewer than one in five students are routinely absent.

Then there are other obstacles, such as bureaucracy: Although the police are supposed to be involved in this effort, it seems they haven't yet been given the heads-up. "We really don't have much of a truancy program at this time," says Officer Rodney Kirkland of the OPD's Youth Services Division, who had never heard of OTAP.

Tracking absentees also remains a problem. Oakland schools use special scanners to get student attendance data into their systems, but as of last year, as many as 45 schools had broken or defective scanners. The district has since replaced them at $3,200 a pop and voted this June to implement a new $11.5 million computer system in place of its outdated one. That should be ready by June 2005.

Despite all the limitations, the programs are showing early promise, even if scofflaw parents such as Mallet are inevitable. "I guess we'll wait for law enforcement to pick her up sometime," Drenick comments after the woman's warrant is issued. The daughter, she notes, is scheduled to start second grade this fall. "Maybe we can catch up with her then."

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