This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Occasionally, Carla Bell can be spotted pounding on doors in her Mount Airy neighborhood early in the morning to rouse families and make sure children go to school.
Bell, the student advisor at Roxborough High School, considers herself lucky to live close to some of her students. Monitoring truancy is her job, and this year it got more intense.
Not that she is complaining. A graduate of William Penn High School and the mother of a sophomore at Germantown, she knows schools’ constant attention and intervention can change behaviors.
"You have to build relationships," she said.
Early intervention is key to the overhauled requirements that took effect this year for how schools handle chronically truant students. The District is working with the city Department of Human Services (DHS) and Family Court to find out the reasons for the absences, provide social services, and refer cases to court only when all else fails.
"There is a clear process and steps for every unexcused absence for every child," said Ericka Washington, who runs the District’s Office of Attendance and Truancy. "When a child is out of school, we want to know the reason. What’s added this year is focusing on intervention. We are giving schools a toolbox."
The new system requires each school to establish a truancy team and follow strict guidelines for contacting the family. The checklist starts with an automated call for the first unexcused absence, followed by a personal phone call on the second day. It goes on from there to a written notification, home visit, and truancy elimination plan worked out with the student and parent, and referral to the Comprehensive Student Assistance Process (CSAP), designed to trigger more services.
Every step must be documented.
So far, District data show that the overall chronic truancy rate this year has declined slightly from last year. Some schools, though, including Roxborough, have shown marked reductions.
While the city and court partners are happy, it is incredibly labor-intensive for the schools. With the District facing a mammoth funding shortfall, shrinking school budgets could imperil this work.
Washington said the commitment will not go away. But some principals are worried.
"We don’t know what the budget will be," said Strawberry Mansion High School’s Byron Williams.
Low-achieving schools designated Empowerment Schools and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s Promise Academies receive extra resources, including a student advisor and parent ombudsman, to anchor the truancy team. But other schools, like Mansion, don’t have additional personnel.
This year, more than a quarter of Mansion’s actively enrolled students have been absent 10 days or more. The number would be higher if not for the efforts of community relations liaison Carolyn Williams. Without her, "some of the kids who came back would not be here," principal Williams said.
Even with the extra personnel at Promise Academies, the work is difficult.
"It’s a lot of paperwork, some parents fight all the way, [the team] has to persevere," said Vaux High School principal William Wade. While the school has made headway, one in five students is chronically truant.
And in this fiscal climate, said Robert McGrogan, president of the principals’ association and until December in charge at Adaire Elementary School, it may not be wise to use up resources on "students who are not there" when students who do show up need so much.
Truancy, often a precursor to dropping out, is a huge issue in Philadelphia. Of students still on public school rolls, nearly 10,000, or about 6 percent, are chronically truant, meaning they have 10 or more unexcused absences. If you count those for whom the District has no current whereabouts but were registered at one time this year in a city school, that number more than doubles.
The reasons are myriad. Students are homeless, responsible for younger siblings, have children of their own, must work to help make ends meet, or care for ailing relatives. Some enroll in schools far away and get tired of taking three buses. Others say they are bored.
"It could be as simple as not having an alarm clock," Washington said.
But before this year, the District did little investigating. Its computer network would generate a list of all those with 10 or more unexcused absences and that list would automatically be sent to truancy court, regardless of the circumstances.
"A family from Pakistan went home for several weeks. Does that family need to be in truancy court?" Washington said.
The collaboration with DHS and truancy court, a subdivision of Family Court, has been two years in the planning. Roberta Trombetta, chief of dependent operations at Family Court, said that the prior system was unworkable.
"We really needed to … be a court and help the District make sure by the time they referred a student they had tried everything to resolve family issues," Trombetta said.
The cases that should never have been referred clogged the system and delayed dealing with those that belonged there, she said.
This year, "there’s been an amazing turnaround," with fewer referrals and more documentation, she said.
The partnership with DHS focuses on younger children. Before, all cases were treated the same, whether the truant was 6 or 16.
Now, students in first through third grades are referred first to community services through DHS.
For this group, said Deszeree Thomas, a DHS deputy commissioner, "the hope is that the provider would identify the cause and get support for the family."
Since December, 135 students in grades one through three have been referred to DHS for a 90-day period. Most families are receptive, said Thomas, but it is too early to judge results.
For students at the other end of the age spectrum, there is a different issue. In Pennsylvania, compulsory schooling ends at age 17. There is no legal cudgel for those older than that.
But schools’ truancy teams are still responsible for tracking these students down. Many are referred to alternative programs.
At Roxborough, nearly 100 of the 600 students have 10 or more unexcused absences. It’s a lot to look after, but Bell and the truancy team are dogged.
Sitting in her office after school, Bell pointed out a young woman who was often truant and had fallen way behind.
As part of her stepped-up outreach, Bell sat the student down to talk. Crying, the girl poured out a story of tangled family obligations and glum school history. She was 18 and still a freshman, but wanted a diploma.
Bell referred her to an accelerated school, where she is scheduled to report at the end of March.
Seeing a possible payoff to the torture that school had become, the girl is "so excited," Bell said.
Although the new system is much more work, Bell said that she thinks she is helping more students.
"We’re using data more than last year, and we’re able to connect to more kids," she said. "Parents are brought into the mix before they get that court notice."
As a result, she said, "We are able to prevent more students from being truant."