|Image courtesy of Lexington / Richland School District Five
This billboard stands on one of the major thoroughfares in Irmo, S.C. in School District 5. The city also asked local businesses to hang stickers on their windows stating that they wouldn't serve school-aged children during school hours unless they were with an adult.
Concerned that too many kids are playing hooky, school officials have turned to the carrot (free cars and iPods) and the stick (fines and arrests) to get students back in their seats.
Student attendance has a direct impact on education funding for most school districts, with better attendance rates equaling more money from the state. The federal No Child Left Behind Act also has given anti-truancy efforts a heightened urgency, as some elementary and middle schools have to meet certain attendance standards to meet annual progress benchmarks . Last year the law required schools to begin reporting their absentee rates to their state education departments for the first time.
States also need to focus on getting missing students back in school because absenteeism is a precursor to juvenile delinquency and dropping out, according to several education experts.
"I think the costs are very high," said Judith Martinez,the director of the National Center for School Engagement (NCSE), a Denver-based group that studies best practices in countering truancy. "If you know that truancy is a predictor of a student dropping out, why not make an investment to address that?"
The national dropout rate is about 30 percent, but the national truancy rate is tougher to determine because there is no national definition of truancy and no uniform method that states use to count absentee students. However, according to NCSE , about 80 percent of dropouts have been chronically absent.
Some schools and districts are using incentives to curb the problem. Students with good attendance can win a car at high schools in Casper, Wyo., and Phoenix, Ore.
In Michigan, which like many states counts students only once or twice a year to determine state funding, the Detroit Public Schools went on an all-out blitz before "Count Day" on Sept. 27 to lure kids to class, offering such things as pizza parties, ice-cream socials, and raffles for iPods and laptops, according to newspaper accounts. The schools stood to lose $7,459 for each missing student.
Schools are holding parents accountable for their children's absences. Three high schools in Tucson, Ariz., are participating in a one-year pilot program in which parents receive text messages when their children cut class. In July, the Norwalk Housing Authority in Connecticut approved a proposal to evict the tenants of Norwalk's public housing complexes if their elementary-aged children have 10 unexcused absences in a school year.
Educators also are turning to their communities for assistance. In South Carolina's District 5, businesses were asked to post stickers saying they wouldn't serve school-aged children during school hours unless their parents were with them.
"It's interesting to look at what these localities are trying,"said Stephanie Walton, the manager of the Children and Families Program of the National Conference of State Legislatures . "It feels like they've had a problem and the standard stuff doesn't work, so they're trying to find a hook as to what will bring kids in."
One reason for all the effort: money. In California, where attendance is averaged throughout the year, the Fremont district lost more than $1 million from the state during the 2005-06 school year because of missing students. The city of Fremont now issues students $75, $150 and $250 citations for their first three unexcused absences during school hours.
Educators are debating which methods best reduce truancy - punitive measures or intervention. Rafael Heller of the Alliance for Excellent Education , a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said he was skeptical of efforts that focus s o much on "the extrinsic - bonuses, money, or fear of what's going to happen to parents."
"We're much more convinced that it's a better investment to improve instruction, student advising, parent-teacher relationships, the school environment - these things are going to be much more effective in the long run," Heller said.
One popular method of intervention is to meet the truant's family to determine why the child is skipping school. In the last legislative session, Louisiana appropriated $65,000 to expand its statewide system of truancy assessment centers, which try to stop future absenteeism by targeting elementary schoolchildren who appear to be on the path toward skipping school.
An Illinois law, enacted in 2006, requires districts to provide absentee students with intervention services. But the Illinois law also allows fines and community service for parents and children over 10 years old.
In Nevada, the Clark County School District, which teaches 70 percent of the state's children, lobbied for a bill that will go before the Nevada Legislature this year. The bill would expand the district's Truancy Diversion Program, levy higher fines for parents, add additional community-service hours for students who miss school, and increase the length of time that a truant's driver's license may be suspended.
More than 20 states tie school attendance to driving privileges. Starting this summer, Illinois, which currently bans truants from enrolling in driver's education courses, will toughen its law by suspending the licenses of absentee students.
Judge Joan Byer, the president of the National Truancy Prevention Association , has been in charge of the Truancy Court Program in Kentucky's Jefferson County since 1997. Intervention, rather than punishment, is a more effective first step, she said.
"Not going to school is the symptom, not the cause," Byer said . A number of factors keep students out of class, including domestic violence, school bullies, lack of clean clothes, having to baby-sit or translate for parents, missing the bus and not having an alternate ride, she explained.
"It's up to the school, social service agencies and the courts to identify why children aren't going to school. There's really a multiple of complex issues that need to be understood instead of just looking at the child and saying, 'This is your fault,'" Byer said.
But if intervention fails, officials have shown they're willing to get tough. Districts across the country have conducted truancy sweeps with school buses and even police cruisers. In recent years, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho and New Mexico have made it easier to fine or arrest the parents of truants .
In Kentucky's Jefferson County, 51 parents were prosecuted for their child's truancy during the last school year, while in Texas' Frisco district, judges have been known to hand down an order that's embarrassing for both the parent and child: Parents have to sign their children in to school on time each day - or else go to school for a day themselves.