Skip school enough in New York City and you might get an inspirational phone call—from Magic Johnson. But in California, you might have to check in on a GPS-enabled device five times a day. Both programs are new ways to keep students in school, before they fall too far behind their classmates.
Most students will miss a day or two of school occasionally, but in some districts, truancy, the act of staying out of school without permission, has become an epidemic. "People generally think some of the reasons kids stay away from school is discretionary," says Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who is working with a New York City task force established by Mayor Michael Bloomberg last fall to reduce truancy. But there are many reasons why students don't attend school regularly, each requiring a different approach to remedy. "We hear 'I didn't feel safe, so I'm avoiding school,' or they may have family issues," Ferrell says, adding that older students may be taking care of a younger sibling or working to help pay bills at home.
One thing researchers realize is the importance of making students want to go to school early in childhood. The link between truancy and problems later in life is undeniable. In New York, 79 percent of children in the juvenile justice system had been chronically absent, meaning they missed 20 days or more of school. About 90 percent of high school dropouts had missed significant portions of school prior to withdrawing. Truancy has also been linked to teen pregnancy, drug use, and poverty, which is why Bloomberg has officials from many city agencies working on the problem together.
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"There isn't a city in this country that doesn't face this problem," says John Feinblatt, the mayor's chief policy adviser who oversees the task force. "Too often people say the Department of Education needs to fix it. We are saying that they can't do this alone because the reasons for truancy are varied and complex. Kids who don't learn are going to show up in other parts of the government system. They'll be kids who become dependent on government subsidies as adults."
School districts in Anaheim, Calif. have begun piloting a GPS-monitoring system developed by Aim Truancy Solutions, a company that sells truancy-reduction programs to school districts. Students who are absent at least 10 percent of the time are given a GPS device about the size of a cell phone and are asked to use the device to check in five times daily—in the morning, after arriving at school, after lunch, after school, and at 8 p.m. The device is checked by a mentor, who then knows whether the student is attending school or not and can track the student down if he or she is playing hooky.
Because the program tracks students' whereabouts, a parent or legal guardian must agree to enroll his or her child. Students are required to check in for the first 6-12 weeks of the yearlong program. After that, a student's mentor will continue to work with the child to make sure he or she doesn't fall back into bad habits. Results in a 2008 pilot of the program in San Antonio, Texas were positive, with attendance rates hitting 97 percent for students in the program.
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In New York, students will receive automated phone calls from celebrities through the Wake Up! NYC program. It's the latest attempt to get attendance rates up in a city where a third of high school students and one fifth of all students miss a month or more of school. Students who have missed at least 10 cumulative days of school will receive automated calls each morning from celebrities like Johnson, rapper Trey Songz, and New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes urging them to go to school. The city is also partnering with popular radio and television stations to inform students and families about the importance of going to school.
"We want to go to the radio stations they're already listening to and the celebrities they already look up to and have them deliver our message," says Feinblatt. But Wake Up! NYC is just a small part of one of the most comprehensive truancy prevention programs in the country. While the program is innovative, automatic phone calls have been found to be an unsuccessful motivator to students.
"It's robotic calling with a twist," says Finessa Ferrell, director of the National Center for School Engagement, an organization that studies truancy. "The first time I got a call from Magic Johnson, I think that might be interesting and entertaining, assuming I got the message. After that became a pattern, intuitively it doesn't seem like it'll have an impact."
Ferrell says the other strategies the city has been employing since the beginning of the school year are much more likely to be effective. And the country's most effective truancy-reduction program doesn't focus on new technology at all.
"It's a mixture of care and attention," says Ferrell. "If a student perceives they're missed at school, a student perceives that someone cares that he or she comes." This approach is the cornerstone of the Check and Connect program, developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota and implemented in at least 200 school districts nationwide.
The program pairs students with professional, full-time mentors who are focused on improving the child's level of achievement. Mentors are committed to work with students for at least two years, which helps ensure students won't fall back into old habits after the program is over. "You've got to make a long-term commitment to them," says Karen Stout, a research associate at the university who helped develop the program.
Mentors go through an intensive, 2-7 day crash training course, then receive ongoing training to deal with students who have special needs, like those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or addiction problems. Mentors check attendance each day and spend at least an hour and fifteen minutes with each student per week.
Mayor Bloomberg's program employs the same strategy, but mentors are employed at each of the 25 schools for at least three days a week. Mentors have access to each student's records, so they will be able to see students' attendance histories and past disciplinary action, which Cornfeld says helps mentors relate to students. The program also offers students with improving or already good attendance incentives such as free backpacks from Office Depot or free jeans from Old Navy.
So far, New York has seen mixed results. Chronic absenteeism is down 24 percent at the 10 elementary schools the task force is targeting and down 16 percent at the eight middle schools. But Feinblatt, who oversees the task force, has seen little improvement at the high school level, which is part of the reason for Wake Up! NYC. The task force is also looking into recruiting successful seniors to mentor freshmen and hiring re-entry coaches to help transition students back to school from juvenile detention centers.
"Kids who aren't going to school in 10th grade are kids who have fallen so far behind—they're overaged [for their grade] and undercredited. Getting them back into school and feeling like they have a stake in their education is very difficult," Feinblatt says.
Incentives and making students know someone is rooting for them are a huge part of the program, which Ferrell, of the National Center for School Engagement, believes is more effective than punishing truant students and their parents. In many states, parents can be fined or even sent to jail because of their truant children. But punishment, she says, really only works with students who are just dabbling with truancy, and whose parents are available but uninformed about the consequences. Those students "just need to get in a little trouble," she says. "The threat of consequences – that does it. For many, many students the reasons they don't come to school are much more complicated."
Strict attendance policies that don't allow students to make up missed work and missed credits only work in theory, she says. Once a student starts missing class, it becomes harder to get that student back on track. "When you have a student who's dug themselves a terrible hole it's wasted time trying to make it clear it's their own fault," she says. "The student is sitting down in the hole. You have to fill the hole with the dirt that's missing. The student has to have a way out."
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