Truancy means trouble -- tackle it early

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Truancy means trouble -- tackle it early

Post  Rosedale Resident on Sun Sep 19, 2010 6:45 pm

Truancy means trouble -- tackle it early
Monday, September 13, 2010
By Ruth Ann Dailey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

September's well under way, and the kids have been back in school for a couple of weeks now.

But chances are high, sadly, that a sizable percentage of our kids will soon be out of school. They'll start racking up the seven or more unexcused absences that get them classified as "habitual truants" -- and that's both sad, in and of itself, and alarming for what it portends:

Truants are more likely to drop out of school, and drop-outs are not only far more likely than their degree-holding peers to be unemployed, they're eight times more likely to be in prison or jail.

"If you think it's bad now, let it keep going on this track for 10 more years," said Judge Dwayne Woodruff. "You haven't seen anything yet."

The former Steelers great-turned-family court judge speaks with conviction about the crisis and the "massive undertaking" ahead as leaders statewide renew efforts to reduce truancy. He summons a sports metaphor for the challenge: "We need to get in the ball game instead of sitting on the sidelines."

But (to extend the metaphor) Judge Woodruff won't be at cornerback for this effort, he'll be quarterback -- leading Allegheny County's Truancy Task Force.

The state's truancy task force, part of the state Supreme Court's ongoing Children's Roundtable, released its 2010 report -- "A Call to Action" -- in May. While the report made a few key recommendations, it rejected the notion of a one-size-fits-all solution and instead delegated the crafting of appropriate strategies to each county.

That makes sense, since statistics vary widely from county to county and even from school district to school district.

And they are quite sobering. While the statewide truancy rate is 8.6 percent, four counties have rates higher than 11 percent, and three of those are in southwestern Pennsylvania -- Allegheny, Fayette and Greene counties.

While Philadelphia County has a much higher overall rate of truancy than Allegheny County (37.89 percent with Allegheny's 12. 87 percent), there are school districts here that meet and even surpass Philly's average.

Locally, Clairton City has the highest rate at 39.09 percent, followed by the Pittsburgh Public Schools at 36.97 and McKeesport Area at 34.52 percent. Cornell, Duquesne City, Penn Hills, Shaler, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills round out the local Top 10.

Chris Smith, executive director of Child Watch of Pittsburgh, culled the local statistics from the state report, along with a summary of its findings, and presented it to the county task force last week. The report is available on the Child Watch website. (I serve on Child Watch's board of directors, where I became aware of this crisis and the new effort to tackle it.)

"Truancy is often understood as the symptom of a larger problem," said Mr. Smith. "It's the earliest indication we have that families need intervention and support."

He and other task force members list many possible causes: parental neglect, bullying at school, lack of money for appropriate clothing, parents needing older kids to stay home to care for younger siblings, a community culture that sees no value in getting an education.

"The schools are preparing people to work," Mr. Smith said, "but if you see no opportunities ahead of you, why bother?"

The Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program for city high school grads is one huge, sustained effort to answer a hopeless "Why bother?" but something else is needed for a trend that mushrooms in middle school.

Truancy is still against the law, Judge Woodruff said, and cases from local magistrates sometimes wind up in his courtroom, but "merely cracking down on the problem doesn't work. ... Zero tolerance doesn't work. Juveniles' brains aren't developed to understand the consequences of their actions.

"We either treat them in a proper way so they succeed and graduate and become functioning members of society, or we build more prisons -- because that's where they're going to be."

The statistics support his assertion. They also indicate that in Allegheny County, 74 percent of truants are African-Americans and 66 percent are males.

Now couple these numbers with the shameful fact that the Pittsburgh region has the highest poverty rate among working-age African-Americans of any of the 40 largest metropolitan regions in the country. (See Harold Miller's July 4 column "High Black Poverty a Shame.") Given the connection between drop-out rates and poverty, the consequences of failing to break this cycle are heart-breaking.

But whether black, white or Hispanic, "if we do not care for the poor and at least help them get through school, it will not get better," Judge Woodruff said.

"I'm not naive -- I know it's going to be a long hard road.

"The only way that this issue will ever be solved is to get all the public involved," he said. "It's not just the judicial system, not just the schools, not just advocacy groups -- it has to be parents, concerned citizens, everybody."



Truancy report
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Rosedale Resident

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Re: Truancy means trouble -- tackle it early

Post  Rosedale Resident on Sun Sep 19, 2010 6:51 pm

"The only way that this issue will ever be solved is to get all the public involved," he said. "It's not just the judicial system, not just the schools, not just advocacy groups -- it has to be parents, concerned citizens, everybody."

Interesting article, full of news we already know. No one seems to be able to answer the question, "HOW"?

Kids that go to school have a better chance to make a life for themselves, but how do you make a kid care?

Parents, schools, and law enforcement have tried and seemingly failed.

These 'experts' need to come up with solutions not catch phrases.
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