Truancy push: Mayor Street targets parents

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As part of its new high-profile effort to combat rampant truancy, the city and the School District are planning their second tough-love session targeting parents whose children repeatedly miss school.

But the related hiring of nearly 400 new parent truant officers – initially targeted for October and then promised for January 1 – is being held up because the city has yet to come up with the funding.

The parent meeting, scheduled for Saturday, February 3 at a site yet to be determined, follows an extraordinary session on November 30 at Temple University’s Liacouras Center to which 6000 parents of chronic truants were invited and warned that if they didn’t attend, they could face a fine or five days in jail. About 4000 came.

This follow-up event will give 650 parents – whose children’s attendance is so bad that they’ve already been referred to the courts – one last chance to avoid severe legal penalties. Beyond the stern lectures parents got at the first session from the mayor and Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty, they’ll get three hours of workshops and referrals to social service agencies and other supports.

If they don’t come, warned city Secretary of Education Jacqueline Barnett, “the judge will proceed with a court order.”

As he finishes out his tenure, Mayor Street is determined to push truancy to the top of the city’s agenda, appalled by data showing that on an average school day, over 16,000 students – almost 10 percent – are absent without an excuse. District data show that, on average, 13 percent of students miss school every day, including those with valid reasons. In high schools, 20 percent of students are absent on a given day.

Although both the city and the District already have anti-truancy initiatives, the mayor is pushing different strategies: holding these mass meetings to jolt parents, threatening sanctions and court action, and restoring community-based truant officers cut by the District over the past several years.

“Truancy is a predictor to dropping out, and dropping out is a predictor to trouble, and we are trying to figure out how to curb trouble,” said Barnett.

The mayor’s truancy initiative came in the wake of the launch of broad, citywide anti-dropout campaign and the release of a study showing that more than 40 percent of Philadelphia public school students drop out before graduation.

In their analysis of several cohorts of Philadelphia students, researchers Ruth Neild and Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University found poor attendance is a strong predictor of future dropouts. “Of those 8th graders who attended school less than 80 percent of the time, 78 percent became high school dropouts,” they wrote.

But the mayor’s plan to hire more than 400 additional parent truancy officers – at a cost of $3 million – is off to a slow start.

“Virtually nothing’s happened. We were hoping to have it up in October, but we haven’t gotten any funding for it,” said District CEO Paul Vallas.

Still at issue is where the money will come from and whether it will be taken from other funds the city already spends on other truancy and delinquency prevention programs, sources said.

The School District scheduled a recruiting session for prospective officers on January 10, with the goal of hiring them by February. More than 300 candidates are already in the pipeline, said Lynn Nichols, administrator in the District’s Office of Transition and Alternative Education, but there is a backlog in getting these applicants child abuse clearances from the state.

As recently as 2002-03, the District had 250 parent truant officers or PTOs – community members and parents who go to students’ homes and neighborhood hangouts to find truants. But it gradually cut back to less than 90 such officers over the past four years when a federal grant that underwrote the program ran out.

Some questioned the effect the officers had, noting that they have no enforcement power or connection to the family court system. But when the city’s initiative was first revealed in September, the District released data showing an 11 percent decrease in unexcused absences at schools that had PTOs working with them consistently over the past four years. However, all of that decrease occurred in the program’s first year, between 2002-03 and 2003-04. Since then, the number of unexcused absences at these schools has remained steady.

During the same four-year period, unexcused absences grew sharply at schools that never had PTOs or had them inconsistently, District data showed.

While unexcused absences declined in the schools with PTOs, average daily attendance did not improve any more than at schools without PTOs. But CEO Vallas is convinced of their effectiveness.

“Schools that have PTOs have higher attendance and a lower truancy rate,” Vallas said. “I think you need boots on the ground, people who can go into homes, people who knock on doors and make contact with families.”

In addition to the PTO program and daily student sweeps in malls and neighborhoods, the District has hundreds of parent volunteers who call homes of truant students and staff a hotline, Vallas said.

The city already has an extensive truancy prevention program, costing around $6 million annually, run largely through the Department of Human Services. That includes a so-called “regional court” system in which social workers, clergy, business people, and others intervene with students before they are referred to truancy court in an effort to sort out what social services a family or a child needs.

Barnett said that this program would be shored up, but that many families who need help with truancy are not in the DHS system, which targets families with records of abuse or neglect. That is why PTOs are needed, she said.

“Young people need to know that there are adults in and around the community that are committed to them being in school,” she said.

Truancy court, which is within the city’s Family Court, has as backlog of about a thousand cases for violations in 2005-06, not counting any students who have been truant this year, Barnett said. The February 3 meeting is a chance to clear out some of that backlog; there are just three Family Court judges who hear truancy cases.

For the November 30 meeting, Mayor Street, CEO Vallas and Family Court Administrative Judge Dougherty sent a letter then to 6000 parents whose fifth to ninth graders had missed more than eight days of school without an excuse. It ordered them to appear at the November meeting or face fines or jail time.

Of the estimated 4000 people who came, many expressed anger at the mayor and the school system.

Some parents said they sent their children to school each day but couldn’t monitor their every move; others blamed the schools for being dangerous and boring. Many of those targeted asserted they got their invitations in error.

But the mayor was undaunted, preaching at them that they could be “crippling” their children by not taking more responsibility for their education. Those parents in attendance who signed an anti-truancy pledge had 2005-06 unexcused absences expunged from their children’s records.

Within the invited group were nearly a thousand families with records that had already landed them referrals to truancy court. Only about a quarter of that group showed up on November 30. The second meeting is targeted to those who didn’t attend, Barnett said, and will offer parenting tips, workshops on the effects of truancy, and other guidance.

“It’s much more complicated than herding them all in and giving them a lecture,” Barnett said.

Representatives from community-based organizations and social service agencies will be on hand, she said. The meeting is being run by Philadelphia Safe and Sound, a community-based organization that has a focus on reducing youth violence.

Another, less publicized piece of the mayor’s anti-truancy effort is a program called REACH (Real Everyday Alternatives, Choices, and Help) that also targets fifth through ninth graders with eight to 12 unexcused absences since the start of the school year. Parents and students attend workshops for four consecutive Saturdays at Beacon Centers, which are city-sponsored community centers that operate inside schools.

According to Allison Poole of Philadelphia Safe and Sound, which is running it, that program already started for some families in December at four sites around the city. She said she had no data on how well they were attended. Vallas maintained that the REACH program – which he said was an extension of his own Saturday program for disruptive and truant youth called SMART – is also off to a slow start due to lack of funding.

The goal is to have 19 operating REACH programs by March, each serving 50 families over a four-week cycle, Poole said.

“We see it as early intervention for families beginning to show signs of serious truancy but aren’t there yet,” Poole said.

Jay Smink, director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, said that the most effective anti-truancy programs combine all agencies and departments working together – schools, police, courts, social services, and the district attorney. “That’s where you have universal acceptance that attending school is critical for learning – besides it being the law,” he said.

Other mayors have sought to use a big stick to bring attention to the issue, he said, including those in Jacksonville, FL and Dallas, TX.