Truants testing schools Situation in city described as 'tragic'

November 15, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

Maryland wants to reach for the sky in education, but most school systems can't even get their students to come to school regularly.

The second annual state report card, released Tuesday, tracks absenteeism for the first time ever. The results are bleak.

Nearly 17 percent of Maryland's 715,176 students were chronically absent last year. In Baltimore, the number of students who are chronically absent was more than twice the number who regularly attend school.

Missing school has become so commonplace in Baltimore that several school officials said they were not surprised by the absentee fig- ures.

"They're tragic figures," said Stuart M. Tabb, in charge of attendance for Baltimore schools. "It's certainly of crisis proportions. . . . Unfortunately, it's been a constant of sorts."

Mr. Tabb has his own figures to complete the picture of absenteeism among the city's 108,000 students. More than 2,000 city students miss 100 days or more of school each year. More than 20,000 students -- 18.5 percent of the school population -- have 36 or more unexcused absences, meeting the state's definition of chronic truants.

"We've got to find a way to get that turned around," said Walter G. Amprey, who took over Aug. 1 as Baltimore school superintendent. "And that's got to happen quickly."

Dr. Amprey said he plans intensive training for principals to help them change students' attitudes about school.

Where are the more than 14,000 students who miss school in Baltimore?

At home. On the streets. In neighborhood stores and restaurants. Getting arrested for drug dealing and other crimes. Anywhere but school.

"I think in the minds of youngsters it's more important to be other places rather than in school," said Dr. Amprey, who was educated in Baltimore public schools. "I'm not sure youngsters value education as they did in the past.

"When I was growing up you didn't want to fail. You didn't want to be a bum. A lot of our kids already know failure. They've already accepted the failure. So we have to motivate them in other ways."

The reasons for chronic absenteeism are complex and may vary from school to school, educators say. Some students are bored by school, are failing, or are placed in programs inappropriate for them. In some instances parents don't see school as a priority. And some students may feel that school just isn't cool.

Across the state, schools with high proportions of truants typically have higher proportions of low-income students. But at Pikesville High School in Baltimore County, for example, Principal David G. King attributes the absentee rate to a high proportion of Jewish students who miss school on Jewish holidays. At Pikesville, 24 percent of students missed more than 20 days of school.

In Prince George's County, where overall absenteeism is second in the state after Baltimore, educators are looking for explanations, said school spokeswoman Bonnie Jenkins.

Though most Prince George's high schools had less of a problem with chronic absenteeism than Baltimore high schools, Prince George's County's two vocational schools outstripped city schools in the proportion of chronically absent students.

Nearly 80 percent of the students at Tall Oaks vocational school in Bowie missed more than a month of school. In Baltimore's Walbrook High, 76.2 percent of students -- the highest percentage in the city -- missed more than a month of school.

In Prince George's, 23.5 percent of students qualify for low-cost or free lunches because of low incomes. In Baltimore, that figure is 62 percent, the highest in the state.

Mr. Tabb says the roots of the absentee problem are social and economic.

"Even if Baltimore City schools [system] was doing everything perfect, and it certainly isn't, we wouldn't solve the problem of truancy or solve the problem of students dropping out of school," he said. "We'd certainly make a dent."

He recently sent strongly worded letters to 400 parents of truants from Harlem Park Middle School, inviting them to a meeting. Only 11 showed up. "That's kind of the nature of the tragedy in terms of parental involvement, parental advocacy," he said.

At Francis Scott Key Elementary, where nearly half the 230 elementary students missed more than a month of school -- the highest percentage among city elementary schools -- Principal Arthur P. Chenoweth also blames parents. The Locust Point school is equipped with a computer that each day calls the homes of students who are absent. Frequently, he says, parents don't respond.

Mr. Tabb said the school system hasn't done all it can in the past, though the problem has received greater attention in the past year or so. Last January, a school board task force made recommendations on ways of reducing the amount of time students spend out of class. The city can't afford some of the task force's weightier suggestions, like providing more counseling in schools.

Part of the solution, Mr. Tabb said, lies in government agencies banding together. Earlier this month, the school system joined with the city Housing Authority to launch a federally funded program to reduce truancy in selected housing projects.

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