Back to school

December 27, 2004

THE PLANNED in-house truancy courts to open in five southwestern Baltimore schools in February will strengthen the push to keep children in their classrooms.

With the year-old Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center and a return to regular truancy sweeps and to citing businesses that serve minors during the daytime shop curfew, the city is stitching a net that can help its children succeed. Test scores won't go up if the test-takers aren't in their seats doing the learning.

Absenteeism is a canker in the city's schools and its communities. Year after year, about 30 percent of Baltimore's public school students are declared truant, which means they have accumulated 20 or more - four weeks' worth - unexcused absences. At Canton Middle, one of the targeted schools, the rate last year was 41 percent. At least some are learning non-civics lessons: About 60 percent of the crime committed during school hours is committed by juveniles, police say.

Officers say that percentage looks to be going down in neighborhoods targeted by the team at the assessment center, as well as in neighborhoods with regular patrols picking up children.

And those picked up seem to be getting to school more: 32 percent have posted better attendance after their experience at the center, staffed by city and state service agencies that can offer help and counseling.

At the center, children and their guardians sign an individualized pledge to do such things as attend counseling, work with the city to get better housing and, of course, make sure the child attends school. So far, only 9 percent of the 800 or so truants brought to the center this year have been repeat offenders.

Truancy courts offer another avenue for help. The courts will sit weekly for 10 weeks each semester, Circuit Court judges at the table with children and their guardians, school staff, social service workers and volunteers from the University of Baltimore's School of Law. The method is to alleviate the problem - children missing school - by treating the causes, including no transportation, asthma or other chronic illnesses, family troubles, boredom, reading problems, homelessness. Everyone at the table will work to get children the assistance - and the attention - they need. School officials will follow students' progress between sessions.

Such courts have a solid record, including in Baltimore. Officials credit the court at Harlem Park Elementary for helping the school surpass the state's 94 percent attendance goal the past three years. Another handful of city schools have had such programs, but most shuttered last year after the district laid off the coordinator. The UB-organized plan has a grant for the next two years; we hope organizers are working to secure funding for the future, and to extend it to other districts.

More need to hear the message. A block from Southeast Middle School, just before the mayor, university president and school officials announced the new court system, a small boy slowly walked away from the school.

On the first Metro bus passing by afterward, two preteen girls rode together, away from school.

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