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District finds success with anti-truancy push

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

GALESBURG (AP) – School districts across Illinois are trying a variety of strategies to get truant students back in the classroom.

The Chicago Tribune reported Monday that a program in Galesburg is succeeding where Chicago has failed, reducing the number of chronically truant students. Truancy officers in Galesburg make home visits and can issue $75 tickets to parents whose children have repeated absences.

Outreach workers sometimes give a child an alarm clock or a pair of shoes. Other cases are harder to solve when there’s domestic violence or mental illness involved. Galesburg outreach workers have walked into meth houses and been threatened in their efforts to get kids to school.

“I think I’ve seen most of Galesburg naked,” said Lisa Zimmerman, an outreach worker for the western Illinois city’s school district. “I’ve had families that frustrated me, but there’s no giving up. Bottom line: I don’t care if you like me, this is about the kid.”

The program has paid for itself by drawing $234,000 in additional state money that’s tied to attendance, Galesburg District 205 Assistant Superintendent Guy Cahill said. The district is facing a budget shortfall, but plans to keep the anti-truancy program.

The newspaper’s report was part of a series of articles about absenteeism in Chicago elementary schools. The newspaper earlier reported that Chicago public school officials jettisoned truancy outreach officers two decades ago during budget troubles and a turnover in leadership. Nearly 32,000 elementary school students in Chicago Public Schools – roughly 1 in 8 – missed four weeks or more of class in the 2010-11 school year.

National experts told the newspaper that there is little research analyzing whether tough anti-truancy measures work for elementary school students.

“I lament the shortage of peer-reviewed research studies not only on official sanctions for truancy but on legal sanctions as applied to school conduct in general,” Rutgers University sociologist Paul Hirschfield said.

At one Galesburg elementary school, outreach worker Joe Pilger hands out alarm clocks to students who tell him they can’t wake up in time to catch the school bus. He sometimes buys shoes for students, using the school’s “miscellaneous funds” account.

At the beginning of each school year, he said, “I’m looking down at the feet to see which shoes have dollar-size holes in them. It’s alarming.”

As director of truancy programs for the Regional Office of Education, Lorenzo Pugh works with 23 schools in Galesburg and four surrounding school districts. His office has issued 50 tickets, he said, including 30 to families of students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The $75 tickets frequently are waived after the students return to school.

Pugh said tickets work well for families with truant children in elementary school.

“It makes a difference,” he said. “It gets the kid to school.”

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Information from: Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com

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