Monday, September 1, 2008

Metro tackles truancy with help center

Tennessean Students brought into the new Metro Attendance Center have a choice — take a citation, head to court and risk paying more than $100 in fines and fees or accept social services offered by the center and don't miss school for six straight weeks. Most choose the latter. "If kids aren't in school, they are not where they're supposed to be," said Bob Ross, director of family services at the Davidson County Juvenile Court. "What were offering kids here is a deal." Metro's $500,000 attendance center opened Aug. 11, the first day of school, and is the mayor's attempt to trim truancy in city schools. The rules are simple: If you're a student caught loitering by police on a school day, you're the type of person the center is likely to see. Students are taken to the center, which is located at an old police station in East Nashville, and interviewed by school and Juvenile Court personnel. The student is given the choice to accept the citation or enroll in programs. The thinking is that many times, truancy is just a symptom of a bigger problem. In any case, by routing students through an attendance center, where they must interview with a case manager and school officials, the student will have access to more services and an added incentive to stay in school, said Atica Helms, program coordinator. "Our job is to stay positive and stay motivated," she said. "We are able to find out contributing factors to attendance problems and catch them on the front end." 15 kids taken to center If students agree to accept social services from the center, which can include anything from grief counseling to help dealing with substance abuse, they must also agree to not miss school and come back to the center after six to eight weeks. Fifteen students have been taken to the center and all have accepted the diversion plan, Helms said. The center was empty Friday afternoon. Attendance is a top priority for schools — the state requires districts to average 93 percent of students in class or show gains toward that goal under No Child Left Behind requirements. Since poor attendance is an earlier indicator a student will drop out, school officials and the mayor also tout the attendance center as a way to improve the city's 70 percent graduation rate. Ralph Thompson, Metro's assistant superintendent for student services, believes the center, along with other improvements in the school district, will help improve the quality of education in the district. Schools also are keeping better records of student absences, and the attendance office has been reorganized so that case workers are spending more time in schools. "I think this is an excellent opportunity for us to work together to improve truancy," he said. "They help us in doing our job because we have more eyes and ears looking into the situation." Contact Jaime Sarrio at 615-726-5964 or

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