Phantom students facing ghostbusters School hauls truants, parents into court

September 29, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Mark Stern is like a ghost at Canton Middle School.

The 13-year-old's name is on Canton's rolls, and each morning a yellow bus brings him from home to the school's front steps.

But when the 7: 55 bell rings to begin classes, chances are Mark has disappeared: He ditched 100 days of school last year, and is well on his way to smashing that mark this year.

"They keep saying he walks in one door and goes out another every morning," said his mother, Doris Stern. "He doesn't even know his teachers' names."

Canton Principal Craig Spilman said Mark is a hard-core truant -- one of about 50 preteens in his school who skip as often as most youths go. Their parents have not responded to the school's efforts to involve them in solving the problem, he said.

At his wit's end, Spilman had the truants' parents summoned to Southeastern District Court yesterday for a stern warning: Get your children to school, or pay the price.

"This is our last resort," Spilman said, moments after Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey told the parents they could face fines, jail time or lose custody of their children if they didn't correct attendance problems. "For some reason, these parents are willing to waive their children's education."

Spilman and other school officials are working with Southeastern District police and the courts to crack down on truants at the East Baltimore school. Yesterday's hearing was designed to get the parents' attention. Now the school will address issues the parents have with getting their children to school.

The school's efforts take place in a system in which most freshmen won't graduate. They also come weeks after some 22,000 students failed to show up for the first day of school -- despite a citywide campaign to increase first-day attendance.

"I tried to get the Police Department to do this with us in 1991, but truancy wasn't that big of an issue then, and they told me they couldn't do it," Spilman said. "But now I think people are realizing that these kids who aren't in school are out causing the problems they end up dealing with. Everyone gains if we get them back into the school."

At the hearing yesterday, school and court officials got a taste of how difficult their task will be.

Doris Stern said she was baffled when summoned to court. She puts her son on the bus each day, she says, and expects the school to keep track of him once he's there.

"I don't understand why they don't do anything," Stern said. "If I put him on the bus, what else am I supposed to do?"

Stern said she believes Mark is skipping because of the company he keeps.

"He hangs around with these older boys, and they don't go," Stern said. "I think they're influencing him."

Asked what she thinks he does all day, Stern said: "God only knows."

Starting time protested

Ardelia Green stood during the court hearing to protest the school's starting time. She said it prevented her from making sure her daughter got there on time -- or at all.

"I leave home before that, and then her grandparents are getting her off to school," Green said. "They're more lenient with her, so if she says she doesn't want to go, I think they just don't make her."

She acknowledged that it was ultimately her responsibility.

"I guess sometimes I just didn't do what I was supposed to do," she said. "But that's changing. So far this year she has only missed the first day."

Tracy Abel, 12, missed 40 days of school last year and says she has "copped out" six times this year.

Why does she ditch school?

"Because it's boring, and they don't teach you anything anyway," Tracy said, adding she'd rather be "sleeping, eating or playing games."

Her mother, Theresa, said Tracy seems to "make plans" not to go to school and won't reveal what she does all day.

"She knows she belongs in school," Theresa Abel said. "She's just as responsible as I am."

'They don't care'

Tracy said she doesn't think anyone at the school cares if she's there. The proof: They pass her even though she doesn't show up, she said.

"You could miss 150 days of school, and they would still pass you," Tracy said. "They don't care."

Spilman and his staff insist they must reach students like Tracy quickly or risk losing them for good.

"Middle school is really our last chance to catch them," said Porterfield Gordon, an administrator at the school. "This kind of thing builds. They start with a few absences in elementary, then more in middle and then you won't see them in high school. And what are they out doing if they're not in school? Nothing good."

Core of the problems

Gordon said what the school and the courts face is "at the core of the problems with urban education."

Spilman said many of his students' families don't function along traditional lines of authority and responsibility.

"If the parents were truly engaged in making it a priority to get to school, the kids would be there," Spilman said. "But if they have no control over their children at home, or are not really involved, what do you think is going to happen?"

Spilman said he keeps his goals in check.

"If we get 10 of these 50 parents to change the pattern, that's success," he said. "If we get 15 to 20, it'll be a phenomenon. That's just reality."

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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