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School-skip bill would put onus on Hub parents

St. John Barned-Smith

Parents of truant students usually have to explain themselves to school officials like guidance counselors, principals or headmasters. But if a new law proposed by two Boston city councilors goes into effect, they may well find themselves explaining their child’s absences to someone else — a judge.

City Council President Maureen Feeney and City Councilor-at-Large John Connolly are pushing legislation to try to lower truancy rates in the city. The program is modeled after a highly successful program in Waterbury, Conn., that began last year in two elementary and middle schools.

The proposal “would start with a pilot program in two or three Boston public schools,” said Connolly.

“We would target schools where we know there is a serious issue with chronic truancy,” he added.

Connolly, who taught at-risk youth in both New York and Boston before entering the political arena, said he knows the damage that regular absence can cause. In a statement accompanying the bill, he wrote, “Yesterday’s chronically truant students become today’s dropouts, and too often, tomorrow’s offenders.”

“I saw it firsthand as a sixth-grade teacher in the [Boston] Renaissance Charter School,” said Connolly in a later interview.

Based on that experience, Connolly said he considers truancy a major issue that can impact public health as well as public education, and can lead to incarceration, addiction and poverty.

The first-term councilor said that the Boston Public Schools (BPS) system’s current methods haven’t adequately dealt with truancy problems, calling some about as effective as a “toothless tiger.”

“I think this program has the chance to stand in opposition to that failure,” he added.

When it comes to addressing truancy, part of the problem lies in assessing how widespread it is. BPS spokesperson Melissa Duggan wrote in an e-mail that specific statistics, such as the number of Boston public school students considered truant or the overall truancy rate in the school system, were not available.

Duggan did note, however, that in the seven-month span from November 2007 through May 2008, members of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s “Operation StopWatch” Truancy Watch effort documented 612 students at Downtown Crossing and Forest Hills who were not in school during school hours.

Interactions through efforts such as StopWatch “provide information about which students are truant, why they are truant, and will provide the foundation for a process that will help alleviate the challenges caused by truancy,” Duggan wrote.

Under the direction of Probate Judge Thomas Brunnock, Waterbury’s public schools saw a 92 percent drop in unexcused absences, from 1,072 total instances of truancy in the two schools during the first half of the school year to just 87 in the second half.

The program proposed by Feeney and Connolly differs slightly from the Waterbury version in order to serve Boston’s larger and more diverse student body.

Waterbury’s total population as of last year was 107,174, according to census data, about one-sixth the size of Boston, home to 599,351 residents. Additionally, Waterbury’s public school system serves just over 18,200 students, while nearly 56,000 students attend public schools here.

And while the Waterbury district is diverse — black and Hispanic students make up about two-thirds of the student body — Boston’s schools are even more so, with minorities comprising about 85 percent of total enrollment.

“It’s not an exact replica of Waterbury, [but the program is designed] so the court can deliver a wakeup call to parents about their child not attending school. … It’s not about locking them up. It’s about intervening in a family situation and delivering services to the whole family,” said Connolly.

Under Brunnock’s program — the idea for which was sparked by a plan implemented in school systems across Rhode Island, he said — parents of chronically truant students meet with a probate judge in schools to assess the causes of their absences. Together, they look for ways to improve attendance, such as after-school tutoring and other means.

“[Students participated] in a voluntary after-school tutorial,” Brunnock said. “We provided whatever the particular need of the student was.

“They were provided transportation home and they were provided a snack — and we identified five or six of the most significant issues [causing their truancy].”

Parents then met with Brunnock on a regular basis.

“A fairly significant [number] said, ‘Thanks for coming, we needed help,’” he said. “The clinic and all, this is completely voluntary.

“I know from dealing with this and seeing reactions from parents, it’s going to help [students’] progress in school,” the judge added. “With that assistance, it makes a situation where you’re empowering your students to do well.”

Connolly’s plan coincides with new actions by the BPS to also lower truancy rates. The system’s truancy center is designed to work with students who have already dropped out or been chronically absent, and assists with credit recovery and counseling services.

“Boston Public Schools’ position has been that we are open to learning about other communities’ approaches to improving attendance, recognizing that what works in another city or town may or may not work here in Boston,” BPS spokesperson Duggan wrote in response to questions about Connolly’s proposal.

However, Connolly is confident in the plan’s viability.

“I’m sure there will be bumps in the road that need to be ironed out, … [but] we have to figure out how to get programs that work,” he said.