updated 8/20/2004 12:43:15 PM ET 2004-08-20T16:43:15

As a 40-year-old former teacher, Chris Lazzaro has found a fresh line of work in education. His job is to make sure the back-to-school season never ends.

In San Francisco’s new fight against school absenteeism, Lazzaro monitors who is cutting classes at a middle school and a high school where truancy runs high.

He makes sure that daily attendance records are accurate and he goes after persistently absent students, reminding their parents or guardians that state law requires the children to show up.

“Often times, parents have been a little bit angry, like I’m bothering them,” Lazzaro said of his unannounced house calls. “Or I’ll find a child sitting there alone, half-dressed, eating cereal and watching TV. I’ll say, ’Get your clothes on, and get to school.’ It can be very difficult, but you have to keep persevering to get the students back.”

Costly consequences
Truancy long has troubled many schools, particularly in urban areas. In a survey this year, nearly half of middle and high school teachers described truancy as a serious problem.

The consequences are clear. Absent students slip behind in academics and get into legal trouble. Schools with high numbers of truants can lose a community’s trust and millions of dollars in student aid.

Federal education law pays some attention to the issue. States must start reporting truancy figures for every school, not just for districts or regions. And attendance is factored into whether many schools make enough progress to avoid landing on the “needs improvement” list, a designation that can force them to let students transfer elsewhere.

Still, truancy remains a second-tier concern, said Tony Woollen, a juvenile detective in Leawood, Kan., who is secretary of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

At a recent conference, Woollen asked 50 school-based police officers about truancy in their schools. Three-quarters said they had no programs in place to address the problem. Most said their priority is stopping gang activity, bullying and sex offenses at school.

Attendance rules enforced unevenly
Every state requires school attendance, yet some do not enforce those laws aggressively or cannot because those laws are vague, said Kathy Christie, vice president of the Education Commission of the States Clearinghouse, which tracks education policies.

School districts have tried, with mixed success, incentives and penalties to get students back. These include student-tracking ID cards, parenting classes, special re-entry classes, truancy courts, and grandparent patrols, as well as parties and concerts to reward attendance.

Beyond those students who see classes as having little relevance to their lives, some students miss school to take care of a sibling or to earn money for their family. Others skip to avoid harassment or physical abuse by other students, or the public embarrassment of being behind academically.

And some students just would rather not do the work.

The best way to deal with the problem, Woollen said, is to find a community approach.

“Any kid growing up is going to be pushing on the walls to see what they can get away with,” he said. “If the solid walls aren’t there, from the school district, the police department, the community, then why should the child go to school? But with a team concept, it doesn’t matter which of the walls they push on. They’re all going to stand up.”

A stay-in-school coalition
That’s what the San Francisco Unified School District is trying.

The district has created a stay-in-school coalition, drawing in help from many sources, from the mayor’s office to the housing authority. It has added specialists such as Lazzaro, called attendance liaisons, in the neediest schools. Parents get letters, calls, visits and help offers as absences mount. The goal is to have an answer for every obstacle or excuse that comes up.

“I have yet to meet parents who clam up when people are sitting at the table with them offering help,” said Susan Wong, the district’s executive director of student services.

Yet parents also get reminders of the potential penalties once students become habitual truants after the sixth unexcused absence. These include fines and reduced welfare aid for parents, and the revocation of driver’s licenses for older students.

District Attorney Kamala Harris is working with the schools to prevent truancy through intervention and school safety programs. She also has made it clear that she will prosecute those who flout the law.

“We’re not criminalizing the kids,” said Louise Renne, the district’s general counsel. “Failing to act — that’s criminalizing the kids.”

Time and persistence
A city grand jury last year found that attendance laws have not been consistently enforced in 25 years, and that without change, the number of students receiving a diploma would drop markedly. The problem has been particularly troubling for black and Hispanic students, who have a disproportionately high truancy rate.

Making the plan work takes time — and persistence.

As administrator of a busy dropout-prevention office, Art Walker spent the better part of a day late last spring trying to get just one child, a boy named Francisco, back to school.

Walker went to the boy’s temporary home, the back room of his grandmother’s store, to confirm his living situation. Through a Spanish-speaking interpreter, Walker told the boy’s mom about help available to her. He also said that her son must be in school or the district attorney would get involved.

“Now,” Walker said after leaving, “I think the message is clear.”

Within two days, Francisco was back to school.

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