- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2011

Students who go to class every day may get more than just an education.

To combat truancy, many school districts are offering iPods, laptops and even cars in exchange for perfect attendance.

The Camden, N.J., school system will pay some students $100 if they sign a pledge promising not to skip school and attend workshops on conflict resolution and other topics. The program is funded through a state grant, and the money must be spent by Sept. 30.

California’s Santa Ana Unified School District partners with a local auto dealership and holds a car raffle at the end of every academic term. Students who made it to every class for the 180-day school year are eligible to win.

“It’s caught on. Our attendance rates have improved,” Santa Ana spokeswoman Angela Burrell told The Washington Times last week. “A lot of people are doing creative things” to decrease truancy rates.

Other raffle prizes in Santa Ana include iPods, movie tickets and other items, Ms. Burrell said. Similar programs have been implemented in districts in Wyoming, Arizona, Michigan and elsewhere.

Education specialists see value in such efforts. Skipping school is often the precursor to dropping out, and schools are wise to try and reach students before they give up on the system entirely, said James Appleton, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, a Clemson University initiative.

“The idea is that students do not just leave school. They slowly disconnect over time,” he said last week.

Many factors can lead to truancy, Mr. Appleton said. Some students are “pushed” from school for a variety of reasons, some as simple as cold classrooms. Others are “pulled” from the classroom because they must work to support their impoverished family, or they follow the lead of friends or siblings who stopped attending.

The District and other urban areas, he added, face greater struggles with truancy than their rural counterparts. Most inner-city school districts have double-digit absentee rates, he said.

Thirteen percent of D.C. high school students, for example, missed at least 15 days of school without a valid excuse during the first half of the 2010-2011 school year, according to a recent report from D.C. Council’s Special Committee on School Safety and Truancy.

The reasons students cut class include unsafe routes to and from school, fear of being bullied, not having the proper clothing or lacking Metro fare to get there, the report says. City officials are considering a reward program along with outreach efforts geared toward truant students and their families.

While reward systems can play a role, analysts believe it’s more important to address the root cause of truancy and find out why students aren’t showing up.

“Research indicates that truants often come from low-income families, have parents who lack high school degrees, are victims of abuse or neglect, have mental health problems or have parents with histories of criminality or substance abuse,” Mr. Appleton said. “However, some are highly intelligent and are just bored with school.”

Many school systems, such as Chicago’s, rely heavily on “early indicators,” identifying students who are most likely to skip class and intervene before truant students become dropouts.

If early intervention fails, truant students and their parents can be hit with harsh penalties. Truancy laws differ from state to state, but students often face fines, community service, restrictions on driving privileges and in extreme cases, probation, according to the dropout prevention center. Some local governments require truant students to wear ankle bracelets so authorities can monitor them during school hours and be sure they’re in class.

In some states, parents can face fines or be forced to attend parenting classes. In the worst cases, parents can face neglect charges and may even lose custody of their children.

While they agree truancy is a serious problem that must be addressed, some officials are skeptical of giving students cash, cars or iPods as incentives to come to class.

Camden, N.J., School Board member Sean Brown told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he opposes the grant program. Former board member Jose Delgado told the paper that the move is “outrageous” and sends the wrong message to students. Many critics believe that daily attendance should be an expectation, and districts should not have to resort to what some consider bribery to get children to class

But others believe that students can’t be reached unless districts get them in the building.

“Many times it is beneficial to get kids to school in order to be able to work on these underlying problems,” Mr. Appleton said. “Research suggested that incentives can be effective.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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