By Howard Blume | LA Times
October 20, 2009 -- Los Angeles' top education official went door to door Monday to urge teens to return to school, netting about a dozen students with the effort and drawing attention to a growing problem.
Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines was among 150 staffers and school board members who joined campus employees in the first-time, broad-based initiative, which targeted 10 truancy-plagued middle and high schools. This school year, about 20,000 of the district's 680,000 students have failed to show up as expected, officials said.
Cortines and others who took part in Monday's friendly sweep emphasized that their main goal was to help students, but said another reason was this month's deadline for districts to provide final enrollment figures to the state.
Those numbers, along with daily attendance figures, help determine annual funding allotments.
A continued enrollment decline could mean displaced teachers or even layoffs in a district that already has endured cutbacks resulting in larger classes.
On Monday morning, Cortines, accompanied by two counselors, knocked on the doors of about 10 households in a half-square-mile area north of John C. Fremont High in Florence. At a tan stucco house, the family he sought had moved, but the current resident was impressed when the superintendent introduced himself.
"So, you the man, huh?"
"I'm the man," Cortines replied, striding away as his companions hurried to catch up.
At the next stop, a purple stucco house, a Fremont counselor spotted a pit bull behind the wrought-iron fence. Cortines tried in vain to telephone the family, then spied a teenager peeking out from the backyard.
It was Jose, 19, who asked that his last name not be published.
The young man said his mother was having financial trouble.
"I'm trying to help her," he said. "She has a little store."
The counselors and Cortines said they could work with the teen to arrange a plan for night school, adult school or a part-time schedule. The superintendent did not leave until Jose committed to an appointment to work out a school schedule.
"I promise," said Jose, who is about a year short of the credits needed to graduate.
He was Cortines' only catch, but officials later said that as a result of the sweep, at least 13 students returned to Fremont on Monday to work out plans for returning to school.
In some cases, the families of those sought had moved. Other students, including Michael Velasquez, had graduated, but not from their original high school. Velasquez, who put on a fresh white T-shirt after the arrival of Cortines and his entourage, used the occasion to make an appointment with a Fremont counselor for help enrolling in a job-training program.
Of 962 missing Fremont students, the school had resolved the cases of 599 before Monday, officials said.
Parent activist Elisa Taub dismissed the effort as a public relations stunt but said she respects Cortines. Community organizer Manuel Criollo praised the symbolism, but said it runs contrary to day-to-day practices by the district that emphasize criminalizing truancy over providing needed social services.
Cortines launched the truancy initiative at the suggestion of school board member Steve Zimmer, who had participated in a similar outreach effort as a teacher and counselor at John Marshall High in Los Feliz.
Zimmer led one of the teams Monday and met with a 15-year-old girl whose story underscored the challenges. With a history of drug use and gang involvement, the girl had been out of school for almost three years and victimized by domestic violence and family disintegration.
A judge recently told her she must choose between school and jail.
After hours of meetings Monday involving district staff and her mother, the girl said she would give school another try.