Getting truants back to school Project Attend uses volunteers to keep tabs

February 23, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Each school-day morning, Bob Kane sits in his tiny bedroom-turned-office in Edmondson Heights and makes the calls.

His message -- Why isn't your child in school today? -- is not one parents usually want to hear. But Kane, a retired school administrator, is persistent.

As part of Project Attend -- an award-winning Baltimore County program that is the only one of its kind in Maryland -- his job is to get chronic truants to show up in class. This year, he and seven other senior volunteers have the daunting task of keeping tabs ++ on 400 middle- and high-school students.

"If we can save one child that's a lot," said Carol Barton, project director for volunteer and senior programs with the county Department of Aging.

Flora Rockett of Wilson Point knows one child whose life has turned around: April, her 15-year-old daughter. And she credits Kane.

"He's really been helpful," Rockett said. "He gave her inspiration and confidence."

Before becoming involved in Project Attend last year, April Rockett went to school sporadically, falling behind in her school work. But by June, the then-Middle River Middle School student received an achievement award for her grades; now the ninth-grader is on track to graduate with her class at Kenwood High School.

"I was the type of person who didn't care. I didn't think it was a big deal to go to school," April said. "Mr. Kane helped me out."

Last year, Project Attend, a three-year pilot program in its second year, worked with almost 300 students in seven schools. This year, the program is available to all 50 of the county's middle and high schools.

And Kane, 64, a father of four grown children and grandfather of eight, leads the charge, dividing errant students among the volunteers.

"He's the key," said Ed Hastry, Project Attend coordinator. "Without follow-up, those kids will stay in bed."

Or watch television all day, hang out at the mall, commit crimes or wander the streets.

Project Attend involves not only senior volunteers but also the school system, police, juvenile justice and social services agencies. And this year, area malls have joined the effort, discouraging students from hanging out during school hours.

"Usually, they come in early because they have nowhere else to go," said Charles W. Norris Jr., director of security at Towson Town Center, whose officers alert the students' school or parents.

Together, the goal is to get students to go to school regularly.

First, parents get a letter, delivered by a uniformed police officer, requiring their presence at a hearing with the truant. Representatives from the various agencies come, too, to see whether the student would benefit from Project Attend.

"They come with numerous problems," Kane said. "Often, the kids are looking for someone to show a little care."

Award-winning program

The program -- which already has resulted in increased attendance rates, less student contact with police and an award from the National Association of Counties -- also has teeth: jail time and/or a $50-a-day fine for parents who don't get their children to school.

Project Attend officials have turned to District Court only once. In that case, the parents received a 20-day suspended jail sentence, three years of probation and a $5,000 fine, but the case was put on hold as long as the couple's two children attended school.

Another truancy court case is scheduled for March 26.

"Our intent is not to take parents to court," Kane said. "Basically, we're looking for cooperation in getting the child to school."

And for parents who are at their wits' ends trying to pry their uncooperative children out of bed in the morning, Project Attend offers this advice: Call 911.

Support for parents

"Parents desperately need support," said John Worden, counseling unit supervisor in the youth and community resources section of the county Police Department. And police paperwork can document the problem of an incorrigible child if court action is taken against the parents.

Sometimes, though, parents feel they're fighting a losing battle.

Eleanor "Jean" Daniels of Lansdowne said she would spend "two solid hours screaming" to get her son up in the mornings -- to no avail. Even Project Attend didn't help, she said.

"The program in itself is a good program," said Daniels, a single mother. "The only thing they can do is charge the parents. What would help is to make the child accountable."

And while Daniels wasn't jailed or fined, her son legally withdrew from school this month as soon as he turned 16.

"The law needs to be changed," Daniels said. "What does a 16-year-old know about life?"

Those involved in Project Attend agree. The biggest conflict, they say, is that teens can withdraw from school at 16 but their parents still are responsible for them until they turn 18.

"I think the legislators need to take a hard look at keeping kids in school till they're 18," Hastry said.

Despite Project Attend's success, those in the program worry about its financial future.

The program depends on a grant from the Maryland Juvenile Justice Advisory Council, and contributions from the county board of education and police department.

But the three-year grant, which started at $40,000 and decreases by $10,000 annually, will provide only $20,000 next year if it is renewed. After that, the school district is expected to support the program.

"If we don't get as much money, we'll have to redesign the idea," said Donald Fair, supervisor of the school district's pupil personnel workers. "We'll have to go back to the drawing board and see what we can do with the existing people and without the money to do it."

Pub Date: 2/23/97

pTC

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