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Published: Monday, 10/4/2004

Schools' battle with truancy also financial

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Sixteen-year-old Kathy was browsing through sweaters Thursday morning at Westfield Shoppingtown Franklin Park.

After that, the plan was ice cream with a friend and maybe a movie.

The teenager, who said shyly that she was a student at Toledo's Start High School, didn't want to give her last name - and with good reason.

When first asked why she wasn't in school at 11:30 a.m., the 16-year-old looked nervous, perhaps suspecting the questioner was an undercover officer or other authority figure.

But she later joked about her offense.

"I don't usually skip, but today was nice so we took off," she said.

Ditching. Skipping. Playing hooky. No matter what you call it, they all mean the same thing for school officials, police, and the courts: truancy.

For Toledo Public Schools - as well as all other Ohio school districts - it's critical to get as many students as possible in the classrooms this week. That's because this is the week the Ohio Department of Education takes its official enrollment count for schools statewide.

Every chronic truant during this time means fewer dollars. For some districts, that can mean up to about $5,000 per student.

As of the end of last year, the state of Ohio provided TPS with about $3,500 in basic aid per pupil on average.

"If we don't have students in the classrooms, the state does not provide the funding," said Diane Irving, director of pupil placement services for Toledo Public Schools.

Truancy is seen as a hurdle for securing that funding as well as reaching both the attendance and proficiency test score goals set through the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

If a pupil is not in school for a proficiency or achievement test, it is scored as a zero, dragging down the district's average.

Last year Toledo Public met the state standard for attendance by just a tenth of a percentage - 93.1 percent.

While Kathy, the 16-year-old who blew off school just one time to go to the mall, is not considered a huge concern, students who consistently skip school without an excuse are a major concern.

Last school year, TPS held 1,310 attendance hearings. Students aren't ordered to such a hearing unless they have had more than 10 unexcused absences in a single grading term, which in high school is about nine weeks.

Any student who is absent without an excuse for that many days is at risk for failing all of his or her courses, Ms. Irving said. The majority of those were high school students, but school officials could not provide an exact breakdown.

"Truancy is the first huge sign that high school graduation is in jeopardy," said Toledo Superintendent Eugene Sanders.

"Kids miss out on a valuable lesson in life that there are time lines, responsibilities, and if that lesson is not learned as quickly as it should, it may have some effect on their adult life," Mr. Sanders said.

"The bottom line is that truancy teaches children that they can avoid their responsibilities," he said.

Chronic truancy has generally been a problem for urban schools more than those in the suburbs or rural areas, Mr. Sanders said.

In Cleveland municipal schools, for example, 5,998 students were categorized as chronically truant last year.

"If you look at these cases individually, there are typically some challenges in the family," Mr. Sanders said.

"Perhaps some dysfunction that is causing the child to perform more adult duties that he normally would."

Washington Local Schools could not provide the number of its students who were chronically truant last year.

The high school principal for the district did not return phone calls seeking comment on the issue. A spokesman said that the superintendant was unreachable.

Toledo police help combat the problem by picking up students who are out and about during school hours.

For the past four years, truants were taken to a truancy drop-off center operated by TPS at 2238 Jefferson Ave., but that program was cut last school year after its funding was lost.

With the center closed, Toledo police now return a truant to his or her respective school, make a report, and forward it to Lucas County Juvenile Court, Sgt. Narciso Gomez of the department's community services division said.

While there isn't a real pattern on truants, Sergeant Gomez said he's noticed that many are junior high school students. More are spotted during nicer weather. They're often found in shopping areas or residences.

"Truancy is a hit or miss thing. Sometimes you see them, then sometimes you don't," the sergeant said.

"You could have a truancy sweep and not pick up any truants. That's not to say everybody went to school that day. The idea is not to be seen."

From January to May of this year, the sergeant's five school resource officers - who handle 47 schools - made reports on 43 truants.

That's 19 less than the total truants picked up during the same period in 2003, but the figure could be lower because fewer truancy sweeps were held this year, Sergeant Gomez said.

Those totals also don't include truants nabbed by officers on street patrol.

Toledo police Lt. Mike Borowske said two officers patrol for truants every day in the Lagrange neighborhood of North Toledo.

A $40,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice pays for the two officers' overtime. They patrol between Bancroft and Cherry and Delaware and Stickney avenues.

Sixteen-year-old Anthony was riding his bicycle on Lagrange Street Thursday morning when a Toledo police cruiser pulled alongside him.

It wasn't long before his bicycle was in the trunk and he was in the back seat - on his way to Scott High School.

"We go out for four hours and average about five kids," Lieutenant Borowske said.

Failing courses and a ride in a police car are not the only things students face if they cut school too often.

"Normally if a kid skips or misses school, the school can do detention, Saturday school, in-school suspension, or out-of-school suspension," said Emilio Ramirez, Toledo Public Schools supervisor for student attendance.

"If he skips a lot, I can do a couple of things. I have the power to take away their driver's license until they're 18, and I can also take away their work permit."

Mr. Ramirez said he pulled 40 driver's licenses in May and June alone.

The next step is to refer the child and parents to Lucas County Juvenile Court, he said.

Last year Toledo Public Schools referred 455 cases to the court.

Juvenile court Judge James Ray said putting a child on probation for missing school doesn't necessarily compel him to return to school.

"I do know that approximately 10 years ago we had upward of 900 kids on probation for truancy violations, and I can't tell you their attendance improved because of that," he said.

"I think it's a cultural thing. Something has happened that convinced kids that they can blow of school," Judge Ray said.

Superintendents and police chiefs in suburban and rural districts said truancy is not much of a problem in their school systems.

Rossford Superintendent Luci Gernot said there were only four chronically truant pupils last year in the district's junior high school.

However, she could not provide the truancy data for Rossford High School.

"I don't see it as being an enormous problem," Superintendent Gernot said.

"Anytime someone skips school, it's a problem, but I don't think it's a chronic, terrible problem for the district," she added.

Thomas Blohm, the police chief in Port Clinton, said it's much more difficult in a smaller district for students to avoid school.

"It hasn't been happening very much here," Chief Blohm said.

"Being a smaller school, they stand out when they are not there."

Blade staff writer Christina Hall contributed to this report.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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