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City Schools Work To Reduce "Chronic Truancy"

Columbus City Schools gives high marks to a one year old district program to keep students in class. Project KEY targets six elementary and middle schools. Its aim: boost attendance and help prevent chronic truancy when students reach high school.

Keeping students in class is among the main tasks for Chief academic Officer Elaine Bell. She says the district enrolls about 54,000 students in 126 schools.

"When its a normal day, we may have five percent of the students who may be absent, anywhere from between five to seven percent." Says Bell.

That means on any given day between 2,700 and 3,700 students are absent from class. Most of those absences are excused. But, Bell says a small percentage of the absentees are classified as "chronically truant."

"To be classified as a chronic or habitual truant does require twelve to fifteen days of unexcused absences. And so we try to prevent students from getting to that level by intervening." Says Bell.

At six elementary and middle schools last year, intervention included 13-hundred letters from the county prosecutor to parents of truant students and 22-hundred follow-up phone calls. Bell says she's encouraged by the results of the Keep Engaging Youth or KEY program. Attendance at the designated schools met or exceeded district and state education goals. Bell and organizers of the program say keeping students in class during their late elementary and middle school years will boost students chance to complete high school.

"The typical truant is a ninth grader. They're usually making those, at that pivotal point, making some of those poor decisions as far as staying in school." Don Heard heads the Juvenile Justice Program at the Y-M-C-A and for the past eight years he supervises the Truancy Intervention Center on South Ohio Avenue. He says 4,000 "troubled kids," as he calls them, will arrive at the Center during the school year. He says the stakes are high and the consequences of chronic truancy can be long-lasting.

Heard tells what he calls a powerful, yet sad, story of a young man. Heard was operating a restaurant at the former Northland mall when he met the teen-ager.

"This particular young man told me that people like me don't give kids like him opportunity."

So Heard hired him to work in his restaurant.

"He worked there about three months. I terminated him after three months for not doing what he's supposed to be doing. Obviously, serving the food right and being on time."

About year later, Heard says the young man returned, apologized to him, and asked for a second chance.

"I gave him another chance. He worked another three months. I terminated him a second time."

Still, heard says he kept track of the young man

"That young man ended up going back to the neighborhood and ended up pistol-whipping an older gentleman and car-jacking him."

The teen was then bound over to adult court, convicted, and imprisoned. He's now 20 years old. But Heard says he still keeps in touch.

"He's an adult now. He's got a record. He's a convicted felon, he's an ex-offender. We have conversations probably about three or four times a year. He's been in and out of some odd jobs, but, y'know, he's managed to keep himself out of jail for the past year and a half. He's managed to understand that his shortcoming is that he didn't listen to adults and I had him come downtown to talk to some of our kids in the day suspension program."

As Heard finished the story, three young teens sat at desks at the Intervention Center. An uncle to the eighth grade girl in the first row was filling out paperwork to take his niece back to school. He said the girl's mother was working and was unaware her daughter had skipped school that day.

Tom Borgerding WOSU News.