Recapturing truants

May 07, 2007

If Baltimore wants to increase the number of its public high school graduates, it must keep more students in school. And that means getting more truants back in class, a task that will require even greater collaboration among school and police officials and the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, which tries to address the reasons that students cut classes.

During the current school year, about 15,640 students have missed more than 20 days of class. Many of those who are 16 and older may have simply dropped out. But about 6,500 who are under 16 and required to be in school can be considered chronic truants.

Since it opened in 2003, the truancy center has worked with the Police Department to pick up youngsters who are on the street during school hours. About 2,000 truants circulated through the center in each of the past two school years. Many of the students and their families have been helped by the services offered by other agencies working from the center, including social services, mental health, substance abuse and housing.

That approach has been very personal - and about one-third of the truants returned to schools by the center have attended more regularly - but it has also been time-consuming for the police officers who would shuttle truants from their neighborhoods to the east-side center. This school year, police have taken most students caught on the streets, more than 4,500 so far, directly to their schools. School administrators follow up with workers at the center who often conduct home visits to help determine needed services, but counselors worry that some students fall through the cracks.

A welcome adjustment is on the horizon. For the next school year, attendance officers whose jobs were cut at the height of the schools' deficit crisis are being restored in middle schools, and a systemwide attendance office will help coordinate their work as well as that of the truancy center.

Police and center workers can still target areas where truants tend to congregate, and the center will continue to identify students who could benefit from specific services. Combining those collaborative efforts with broader, more focused involvement by the school system should help put more truants back in school - and keep them there.

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