Truancy high, but improving, at Berkeley High School

Berkeley High School. Photo: Charlotte Wayne

In the last two weeks, Berkeley High officials have sent out close to 2,000 letters telling students they have been truant, but they are regarding the number as an achievement.

While it might seem worrisome that 60% of the school’s 3,300 students are routinely skipping class, the situation is actually better than last year thanks to new programs on preventing truancy, according to Daniel Roose, the dean of attendance.

While in 2010, only about 90.7% of the students attended regularly, the number is up this year, said Roose. Attendance in September, October, and November of 2011 was more than 94%, he said.

“It’s still way too high,” said Roose. “The state of California would like all California schools to be in the high 90s. We are below average for our peer schools in California.”

A comparison of BHS attendance figures from 2010-11 to this year

In previous years, Berkeley officials have estimated that the district loses about $100,000 a month when kids do not go to high school, and has lost as much as $2.4 million a year. Roose did not have figures available yet for this year.

The vast majority of the letters sent out – 1,776 — went to parents to tell them their child has three “unexcused absences.”  Another batch went to 131 families telling them their children had four or more unexcused absences. A third batch went to 67 families telling them their kids had five or more unexcused absences.

The unexcused absences do not necessarily mean the student has missed an entire day of school. It can mean he or she just missed one period.

While Berkeley Unified School District has always sought to limit truancy, with mixed success, (and has been criticized by the Alameda County District Attorney for a lax truancy plan), the matter took on a new urgency after the spate of gun violence that erupted at the high school last year, according to Karen Hemphill, a member of the school board. To help combat truancy, the district hired Roose to work half time on truancy issues, she said. There are also now three clerks, rather then two, in the attendance office.

“It is now something the district is purposeful about,” said Hemphill. “Before, there wasn’t a systematic plan in place.”

In his July 2011 interview with Berkeleyside, Berkeley High Principal Pasquale Scuderi said attendance was one of his four key areas of focus for the 2011-12 academic year.

The high school has instituted a number of new programs to stem truancy, and many of them are based on more personal contact then there ever was in the past, said Roose. For years, families would get an automated call when a student missed a class with few details about which period he or she had missed. Now the automated calls include those specifics, according to Hemphill.

Every other week, a group of 20 volunteers gets together and calls the families of kids who have a high number of absences.

“The personal approach is the best,” said Roose. “We personally call every single family and say this is the situation.”

Families of students who have four or more unexcused absences are required to come in and meet with school officials.

Kids with three or more unexcused absences are now barred from attending school dances.

“For a lot of kids, that is a big incentive to come to class,” said Roose.

The school has also started to do two different kinds of truancy sweeps, said Roose. Every other week, on alternating days, campus monitors, a student resource officer from the Berkeley Police Department, Roose, and Susan Craig, the head of student services, walk the neighborhood around Berkeley High to look for students who should be in class.

“We don’t manacle kids and throw them into a paddy wagon,” said Roose. “We stop them, write down their names, escort them back to school, and call their families that night. Kids are getting the message that you can’t walk off the campus and no one will notice you.”

Every other week, a similar group snags kids who walk into school late after lunch. The parents of those children also get a phone call. Berkeley High is also trying to offer enticements for kids to have a good attendance record. The school gave out a prize during Spirit Week to the class with the best attendance. The ninth grade won.

The tightening of the perimeter at the high school this year has also helped reduce the number of students just wandering out of class when they feel like it. Now there are campus monitors at each of the four entrances to quiz students about where they are going.

“If you want to increase student achievement and student learning, kids need to be in their seats,” said Roose. “Kids need to be in their class. The district gets that. The board gets that. Our principal is very dedicated to that.”

Students see security changes at Berkeley High [09/02.11]
Pasquale Scuderi on his first year as head of Berkeley High [07.07.11] 

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  • Anonymous

    Let’s get this right:  kids do not want to be in the classroom, so the solution is to use force to put them back in the classroom?  Yeah.  Like that’s going to work.  Right. 

    How about another approach — let’s consider that there are very valid reasons why kids do not want to be in school.  Like say like the fact that they do not see what they are learning as relevant to their day-to-day life or future?

    A good place to start might be to look at which instructors have the highest truancy rates.  It may also break down by subject of the class, but a wild guess says there is liable to be a strong correlation between truancy and specific instructors.  However the kids are also screaming loudly that the classes they are missing have very little relevancy to them day-to-day.

    Is building a better jail system (oh sorry, they call it “tightening the perimeter”) really the best design possible here?  I think not.

  • Culperagent355

    Could be that many kids have to travel too far on public transportation to school. Like, yeah, other cities. And those notices are probably not going to anyone in the place they are really living. Nice try though. A better use of time would be to enforce the illegal out-of-district students. But no, BUSD is more interested in collecting per diems for any student, regardless of how out-of-district scofflaws affect the entire culture of the high school. 

  • Culperagent355

    More likely that the students who miss school are blitzed out on grass because the administration of BHS thinks it can’t question stoned students because of the HIPPA laws. Can minors be prescribed medical marijuana? BTW, is taking math and science, art, history and phys ed meaningless?

  • Anonymous

    I did not say meaningless.  I said relevant.  If a child does not see something as relevant, they will not want to waste time learning it. 

    If you want to solve problems, go to the root of the problem.

  • Bruce Love

    VladislavDavidzon, have you looked at the course catalog and small school system?   I think you are barking up the right tree.

  • Over at the Berkeley Accountable Schools Project, we have received anecdotal reports that attendance problems for out-of-district students can be especially pronounced for families with multiple children of elementary school age.  If one child is ill and has to stay home from school with a parent in, say, Antioch, that parent isn’t likely to drive the other children to school in Berkeley.  Within Berkeley we can offer bus service, but that doesn’t work for the sizable out-of-district population.

  • elp

    I would have more faith in the attendance system and record keeping if it didn’t take up to a month or more for field trip absences to be recorded correctly.

  • Glad to see BHS taking steps to address attendance issues. These may not be comprehensive long-term solutions, but I can appreciate that immediate actions have been taken to improve how they deal with truancy in the short-term. I admonished a number of truant students last year, and am relieved to have not had to deal with any this year (hiding within our complex, in the stairwells, or on the front steps). 

  • Sue

    Well, this whole relevant thing you mention,  is nothing new.  JFC, I graduated 45 years ago from HS, not Berkeley but I and most  of my friends didn’t want to be in school either.  We blamed it on “relevancy”, but we were just kids and thankfully had parents who gave a SH*T and therefore there were consequences to not attending.  If these students can get away with cutting school, then my guess is they will continue. If the parents receive multiple letters and do nothing, sounds like they need to go to parenting school. 

  • Laura

    I can’t help but ask, have you raised a child yet?

  • Iangoeswest

    Agreeing for purposes of discussion that truancy is bad writ large, I would offer a reality check on the numbers. “Truancy,” as the article points out, consists of THREE unexcused absences over the course of the school year. Me, I don’t see an epidemic of grass-smoking, unmotivated and poorly-parented youth if the criteria is that they’re missing one day a month. I have a somewhat more lenient view; heck, if I feel like knocking off from work one day a month to enjoy a three-day weekend with my kids and family – which I have, as my two truant children can attest – I feel within my prerogative to do so.

    I’m sure truancy is a problem at some level, but I think we should maybe dial it back a bit,

  • Bruce Love

    You and your damn sanity.

  • Anonymous

    I ‘died’ a thousand deaths in HS, all three of them to be exact and ‘barely’ got out after having to stay back an entire year due to major depression with parents who were violent and essentially emotionally comatose as well as possessed and demented, and with PhDs no less.  All of this with an IQ in the superior and MENSA range.  Years later, a former neighbor in Marin wrote this book and updated it as needed.  In his rare lectures on radio he once stated “What is the first thing that Johnny learns when he goes to school?”  His firm answer was that it’s “Boring” and that of all of things that changed in the 60s or started to, politics and education were frozen in a time warp and remained in the distant ‘drill and kill’ past.  I had *No* one to talk to in any of those school back then and I understand today is no different, if not more toxic and dangerous.  I mean guns and bombs to school?  What planet is this anyhow.  If one does not cheat on the tests now your considered a fool as well.  Then it all becomes more uglier. America’s answer to all of this is and has been “More metal detectors…” 

     While this post will not change nor alter anything, I highly suggest that people remove their children from these schools very quietly and discreetly after having long and involved talks with their children across time.  Education should be ‘exciting and energizing’ and so should work vs. just a mind numbing and soul deadening task or job required by law to be endured and suffered through along with the rest of life.  

    So some may find George Leonard’s book, titled “Education and Ecstasy” very helpful on this very painful and tragic subject.  And just for a wild perspective, I ran across a paragraph in Terrible Ted Kaczyinski’s endless manifesto, that quietly stated that “It was not in the nature of a young man to sit at a desk in school for eight hours a day…” Sometimes, but not always, even the most crazed of us has a unique perspective on reality and truth albeit temporary and fleeting.

  • Chris

    I went high school in South Florida. If a cop saw someone under 18 on the streets on a school day, we/they got picked up and taken back to school or the school board office. I understand this is more difficult with so many UC students, but would go a long way to improving these numbers.

  • Laura

    Kids taking family days are EXCUSED absences, the parent writes a note.

    A chronically truant kid is often at risk or high risk for a host of serious problems. Did you know that home burglaries are often committed by chronically truant kids? I realize that society has lost touch with some basic facts about the impact of truancy since schools/city  stop enforcing the laws a few decades ago. However, correlations with high risk behaviors and truancy are as true today as they were when legislators wrote the education code laws which BHS is now complying with.

     Do you know what the current drop out rates are, let’s start with the highest risk group, minority males. The relevancy argument only goes so far when you consider that  remedial basic English remains the most crowded class at Berkeley city college and success rates are pretty low.

    For poor and barely middle class kids  the message really needs to be WORK hard now and train yourself while you are young and supported by parents for the challenges ahead. I chased around town a few truant males I had responsibility for with varying results.  I do not wish it on any adult, and I know some pretty disturbing tales from parents who sought my advice when their kids got into trouble.  The new attitude and partnership from the high school is a welcome relief for those of us with kids who veer too far and are in danger of not graduating high school.

    The district is RIGHT to be correcting the attitude which enables kids to be self deluded and  indulgent skipping classes after  lunch because the sun is out. 

    Back in 2001 I was regular campus monitor after lunch walking the perimeters and speaking with kids on campus and off who were cutting class.  I did an informal survey only interviewing truants kids. Not one kid suggested “relevancy” as a reason for cutting, they all said the same thing,   BECAUSE YOU CAN and the adults don’t challenge you.

  • Dave W.

    Does Berkeley High still drop a kid’s grade a full grade lower if they have 3 unexcused absences? I wish the article had included this information.

  • jacob

    You are completely overgeneralizing Laura. I think for some of these truant students we should offer them alternatives such as Independent Studies or GED studying with job training skills. Instead of forcing them to do something, give them options.

  • Laura

    Obviously, alternatives, but offering alternatives requires making contact with the kid.

    Before correcting me you might want to consider where the gaps are in  our current support services, this is why the district is improving identification and support services.

    I am a continuation high school grad, one of my sons finished at Independent Studies, as did three of his friends.

    And my nephew, who was a stoned Parkie, completed the CHSPE, which is yet another alternative to compulsory education.

  • Voxhumana

    How can you offer a truant kid “independent study?” Haven’t they demonstrated they are incapable of effectively managing their efforts?

  • Bruce Love

    Haven’t they demonstrated they are incapable of effectively managing their efforts?

    No.  Why would you think so?

  • Robbligh

    Unfortunately, habitual truancy is merely a symptom and not
    the disease. Children who adopt the habit of truancy do so because they live in
    households where truancy is tolerated. Of course habitually truant children do
    very badly in school, but those two are not cause and effect. They are two
    effects of a common cause. Such children are living in inadequate households.
    Such children are taught how to behave by the inadequate “adults” that they
    live among. Over 91 percent of every childhood is spent somewhere other than in
    school. Forcing unraised children to appear in school regularly is no cure for
    their academic failure. Forced school attendance will not quickly (or even
    eventually) cause them to act as if they have been responsibly raised. 
    For at least the last half century, America has ordered its public schools to
    fix a long list of non-school social problems. It has ordered in vain. Schools
    everywhere are very successful at educating those children who have been
    responsibly raised, but can to very little for those children who have not. If
    we really care about our habitual truants, we must do something about the
    inadequate households that produce them. Ordering schools to “fix” the problem
    of habitual truancy is like prescribing aspirin for a brain cancer. Even if it
    makes you feel better temporarily, it is the political correctness equivalent
    wishing the cancer away.

  • Is My Child A Truant?

    Being labelled a “truant” (a pupil breaching the laws mandating school attendance) can be devastating to a family.  The process may lead to meetings with school officials or even a School Attendance Review Board (SARB) hearing with a rigorous contract imposed on the family and even court action.  This is definitely something to be avoided if possible.  As such, the basics of what makes a student into a truant must be understood by parents and students