Friday, October 08, 2010


Diana L. Chapman | MY TURN | CityWatch Vol 8 Issue 80 |

Active ImageOct 8, 2010 - Los Angeles Unified School officials, tackling a $1.3 billion deficit over the next three years, revealed the opening of eight new centers dedicated to go after truant students and hook them back into schools starting  in November.

Having lost millions in state funding due to truancy, school officials will begin the task of reining in thousands of students who fail to go to school Nov 1.

The facilities will be located at four high schools and several middle schools peppered throughout the district. Each will include one certified teacher, one aide and one safety officer,  said Judy Elliott, the district’s chief academic officer.

“They will be separate places (on the campuses) so that students do not mingle with the general population of the campus," said  Elliott, who planned out the centers with her staff. “

“They will work on a different bell schedule, lunch schedule and the like to ensure students are separate from regular campus activities.

“We have a lot of disenfranchised kids. Some kids are just late because they couldn’t get out of bed. The whole goal is to get them off the streets and into a safe environment.”

Police embrace the program because it helps officers have a location to drop off students rather than giving the child a $250 truancy ticket, which often doesn’t change the situation, Elliott said.

Calling them “Attendance Improvement Centers” rather than truancy facilities, school officials will initially target middle and high school students.

Students are to be assessed and returned to their usual campus by the following day or “two days at most,” Elliott explained. They will be given a work packet to start catching up with their school work.  She added it will not be a place of leisure for students – but for education.

It will also provide a strict environment in which students won’t be  too comfortable, so they’ll want to return to their home school. For example, students will not be allowed to put their heads on their desks to rest, she said.

Students, who be coming from a wide variety of areas to the centers, will be kept separate from the regular student population to avoid any potential gang conflicts, age differences or distractions to other students, said Debra Durado, director of pupil services.

For years, Los Angeles Unified has been hit hard financially due to the number of children missing in school.

The state pays schools an average daily attendance rate which equals about $33 a day per student. District calculations reflect that about 172,516 children missed at least three days of school in 2009-2010. That means nearly $17 million of funding was lost in a single year.

“We are losing all this ADA money,” Elliott explained” 

Elliott oversaw a similar program in the much smaller school district of Long Beach that met with success. Having worked with Los Angeles for two years now, Elliott said she was intense about pushing this plan forward, but wants it to start off small so it can be successful from the early stages and then flourish.

“I have always known this is the right thing to do for the district,” she added.

Unlike Long Beach, the Los Angeles program will not yet include children who have been suspended or elementary students. It was easier to accommodate those students in Long Beach which only has 89,000 students compared to the Los Angeles district’s 463,000. 

Principals, she said, were vying to have the centers on their campuses due to the resources that it provides their students.  The district selected schools that could geographically take truant students from all the nearby surrounding schools and had strong principals.

Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Pat Gannon, who operates the department’s southern bureau, said his officers would find the centers useful as they often are  collecting children off the streets during school hours.

“ I was at a meeting last week with LAUSD district superintendents,” Gannon said. “In that meeting I learned of the truancy centers that are being established and I was told San Pedro High School would have one of these centers. This is great news.

“The focus of our truancy efforts have always been to keep kids in the school. If they are in school, they are less likely to get into trouble and will be in a better position to learn. We have pledged to fully support this effort.”

Campuses that will have the centers include: Sepulveda, Gage and El Sereno and Burbank middle schools; High schools that will house them are San Pedro, Belmont, Washington Preparatory High School. Another center will be established at the Santee Education Complex.

“This is going to be a great opportunity for San Pedro High School students in particular,” said an enthusiastic San Pedro High Principal Jeanette Stevens who welcomed the truancy center on her campus. “The resources available in the center will actually assist students in understanding the value of their education and support their learning objectives.

“The goal is to reduce the number of truancies and to provide an opportunity for the students’ needs to be addressed within an educational environment.”

The San Pedro center will be located in a room near 15th Street and Alma, making  it easier for parents and police officers to access, she said.

David Kooper, chief of staff for Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Vladovic, said the board member and his staff are also enthusiastic and relieved about the centers – especially after police believed students were causing a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood surrounding San  Pedro High last spring.

While it turned out the students were not involved, Kooper said it brings relief to know students loitering on the streets will be swept up and brought to a location where their needs will be addressed and their parents called.

“It’s going to be a great program,” he said. “Anything we can do to keep kids in school and out of trouble is good. Kids cannot learn if they are not in school.”

The Los Angeles Unified centers were Elliott’s brainchild after she oversaw the truancy center that began in Long Beach where she was the assistant superintendent for support services for eight years.

During that time, the Long Beach program was deemed highly successful. Because of the Long Beach district’s smaller size, only one was established and it accommodated all ages from elementary to high school. It also tackled those students who were suspended.

Once the new centers are successful, Elliott explained, she plans to add both truant elementary and suspended students to the plan.

In Long Beach, the center paid for itself in returns of ADA, which Elliott said will happen with the program in Los Angeles. It will be a self-sustaining.

At the current time, the district is still working out some remaining logistics, such as what happens to a child picked up in Los Angeles, who actually goes to school in area outside of the district such as Compton or Bellflower. The district would be responsible for that child and has to determine how to get them back home.

Because truancy issues have financially injured Los Angeles Unified, school officials have launched other means to help students. Besides opening the centers, Elliott said, the district also started a virtual high school where students can finish courses on-line. This way they can recoup or accelerate the courses they need.

A mobile van to reconnect students and families to LAUSD schools will soon be rolling into neighborhoods to give parents and students information on how to return children to school or reenroll to graduate.

A variety of reasons, she explained, often small crises, keep children out of school.

“There are immigrant families who need kids to stay home and take care of younger siblings,” she said. “You have kids who don’t have the clothes to wear. You have kids who have violence at night and some of the kids have to walk through challenging neighborhoods.

“That’s the reality in urban America.”

(Diana Chapman has been a writer/journalist for nearly thirty years. She has written for magazines, newspapers and the best-seller series, Chicken Soup for the Soul. You can reach her at hartchap@cox.netor @ her website )   -cw

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