Schools hunt for the missing

September 30, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland walked briskly down Presstman Street, knocked on the door of a brick rowhouse and asked the woman who came to the door about a boy who had failed to show up for school this year.

"Yes, that is my grandson," said Mary Dubose. "He doesn't live here anymore."

Dubose didn't like hearing that the boy hadn't yet been to Central Career Academy at Briscoe this year. "He is 15 years old, and he knows to go to school," she said, promising she would urge the boy's mother to get him back in school.

The schools chief may not have gotten the boy back in school, but the contact was a small victory for Copeland, who stepped out of her role as top administrator to become a truant officer yesterday morning.

Trying to help stem the trend of declining school enrollment, Copeland took to the streets to find out what had become of five students who were enrolled last year but hadn't yet come to school this month.

The city and school system have been going all out trying to find students who were missing after school started Sept. 7, Copeland said. Mayor Martin O'Malley has lent support to the effort by asking firefighters to knock on doors of students who weren't attending classes, as well as getting 311 operators to call homes.

Loss of revenue

Not only is Copeland concerned about the students, she said, but also about the possible loss of state revenue. The school system will get $8,500 in state tax dollars next school year for every student enrolled on Sept. 30.

Yesterday, the unofficial enrollment was 88,692 students -- about 3,080 fewer than this time last year. While that may seem a large drop, it is exactly what the school system projected and is consistent with the long-term trend.

In 1997, city schools had approximately 107,000 students, and they have lost 2,000 to 3,000 students a year -- or more -- since then.

Thomas Kim, who keeps track of enrollment trends and other statistics for the school system, said officials believe the decline is due to several factors: students leaving for private, parochial and county schools; students dropping out; and students going to jail or into the Juvenile Justice System.

Task force forming

According to data from the Maryland Department of Planning, there were 18,000 city children enrolled in parochial and private schools last year.

Whenever possible, principals collect data on why students have left the system, Kim said. A task force is being assembled to analyze that information and to explore ways the system might retain its students and attract others.

"We are not sitting around counting the students we have, but are looking at the data to see why these kids aren't coming back," Kim said.

While Copeland didn't find any bona fide truants at home, she hoped that her rounds would make clear to students and parents that attendance is among her priorities.

Trying to `reach out'

"I do think leadership is important," Copeland said. "The students are walking with their feet. I think I should walk too. ... I want to personally reach out to as many students as I can, to say it is important to be in school."

On her march through the streets, Copeland also caught up with another absent student, an 11-year-old boy who wasn't at Violetville Elementary School this year. Copeland arrived at his house just as the boy was arriving home in a van from physical therapy. His father, Wade McMillion Jr., said his son had surgery on both legs and would return to school when he had recuperated.

McMillion seized the opportunity to tell Copeland he didn't believe the school had provided enough services for his disabled son, a problem Copeland said she would work to correct.

Sun staff writer Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.

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