City beefs up efforts at truancy prevention

Cracking down on the parents of truant students is adding up to better attendance.

What began as a modest effort in 2006 in which the District Attorney’s Office would take part in mediations involving the school district and parents has grown into a war on school absenteeism with a full-time prosecutor who has taken 20 parents to court.

And though prosecuting parents of chronically truant students has improved the attendance of San Francisco school children across the board, improvements are still needed to be made for older students, District Attorney Kamala Harris said.

The infractions carry a $100 fine, and if the truancy continues, prosecutors can pursue misdemeanor charges of neglecting a child’s education, charges that could land a parent in county jail for up to a year with a fine up to $2,500.

Harris, who is running for California attorney general in 2010, said Friday that the Department of Child Protective Services would also dedicate a caseworker to monitor truant students, adding another level of punitive action to the table, though Harris and schools Superintendent Carlos Garcia said punishment isn’t the goal of the program.

“The goal is not to have the child taken away from the parents,” Harris said. “If we don’t educate these kids in the classroom, they’re going to be educated in the streets, and we don’t want that.” 

School district numbers that relate to habitually truant students, those with 10 to 19 unexcused absences, and chronic truants, those with 20 or more absences, show there have been marked improvements.

In the 2007-08 school year, there were 2,105 chronic and habitually truant elementary school children. In 2008-09, that number decreased about 17.3 percent to 1,740, according to the latest San Francisco Unified School District numbers.

Upper grades did not see as much of an improvement. There was a 5.3 percent decrease in habitually and chronic middle school students and a 4.6 percent decrease for high school students.

Harris has been bringing in parents of high school students to the District Attorney’s Office to help boost the numbers for older schoolchildren. 

Garcia also pledged to improve the district’s tracking system to provide real-time truancy information through a system called Data Director.

The number of students skipping school in San Francisco has long been above statewide averages, and costs the already cash-strapped district more than $5 million in state funding every year. One absence costs the San Francisco Unified School District about $42, according to district data.

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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