Camden school district tries personal approach to decrease truancy

Camden School District attendance officer Carol Cooper, who works out of the High School, knocks on a window trying to talk with a parent or student about a truant student's reasons for missing school.

For the third time since September, attendance officer Carol Cooper knocked on the door of the home in Camden's Lanning Square section. The boy who lived there had racked up 12 unexcused absences since the start of the school year.

When Cooper came on her most recent visit earlier this month, the boy's stepfather opened the door. Cooper asked if he knew why his stepson was missing class.

"The school bus comes late," said the man. "He catches the bus every day. But the bus doesn't come here till 8."

If the boy gets on the bus, he shouldn't be counted absent, Cooper said, but an 8 a.m. bus wouldn't get him to Camden High School until the middle of first period. Cooper said she'd look into it, which would probably involve contacting the bus operator.

Home visits are nothing new for the more than 18 attendance officers in the state-run district, which in the last school year counted a staggering 38 percent of its approximately 10,000 students chronically absent. But in recent years, truancy officials have started asking more questions when they knock on doors: Where is the child when he or she isn't in school? Why aren't they in school? Most important, how can the district help?

In examining the root causes of chronic absenteeism in Camden, district officials have learned that students miss school for any number of reasons: They have untreated health or behavioral problems, they're being bullied, a parent has asked them to stay home and babysit a younger sibling, they aren't receiving the proper special education services, a guardian is struggling with a medical or mental health problem and can't take them to the bus stop.

"In the past, we've had these high numbers, but we had no real accountability," said attendance manager Camaline Nathaniel in an interview last week. "We never really knew why the kids weren't in school.

"If attendance is done correctly, I know and believe kids' lives can change," Nathaniel added. "Their lives can change, if we can just get them to school."

A review of state data by an advocacy group found that about 10 percent of New Jersey students were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year. Though truancy may be most commonly associated with middle and high school-aged students, chronic absenteeism - defined by most districts as missing 10 percent or more of the year's school days - emerges in some children as early as prekindergarten.

Research has shown that chronic absenteeism in kindergarten is associated with lower academic performance in first grade and that students who were chronically absent in pre-K and kindergarten are also more likely to miss school in later years. That can lead to the students having to repeat grades, which can later become another reason older students lose interest in school.

For years, Camden's truancy policies were guided primarily by the state's attendance laws, said Maggie Sorby, who oversees Camden's student support services. Ten unexcused absences triggered an automatic referral to truancy court, where parents are threatened with fines or even jail time.

Attendance officers now report directly to schools, instead of the central office. They open investigations into each truancy case, documenting as much information as they can about the student and the family so that the file can be reviewed by supervisors who work on connecting the family with any help they need.

"We don't want to just drop the note at the door and say, you're out 10 days - you're going to court," Nathaniel said. "We want to work on a plan to help them. We want to work with parents. All we want to do is whatever we've got to do to get the kid to school."

Cooper, a Camden High School graduate who has worked for the district for 11 years, said some parents are hostile when she makes home visits, slamming doors and cursing. But most don't seem surprised to see her. Often older siblings answer the door, listen uninterestedly to Cooper's questions and agree to give the notice to a parent. Cooper visits some homes multiple times, leaving detailed notes, only to later have a parent come to court and angrily deny that she'd ever come to the home. Other parents never show up to court at all.

It's too early to say what impact the district's new approach has had, but Sorby said the number of court referrals was down from this time last year. The district also has launched a program aimed at dealing with the most chronically absent students through home visits and other proactive approaches. By the end of this school year, Sorby hopes district officials can take what they have learned and set yearly goals to reduce the absenteeism rate.

"Right now we're still measuring the effectiveness of these home visits," she said, "but we're definitely seeing progress, little by little."

Parents and guardians summoned to truancy court, which is held weekly in Camden's City Hall, usually bring their children and spend time meeting with Nathaniel, who consults with them about their case before making a recommendation to a municipal judge.

Last week Nathaniel spoke with the elderly grandmother of a 17-year-old boy who had stopped going to school and was running in the streets and doing drugs with friends. Nathaniel told Judge Roderick Baltimore that they were providing the teenager with counseling as well as a mentor.

Baltimore warned the teenager that his behavior must improve, and ordered him to return to court later this spring for an update. Afterward the teenager walked out of the courtroom, away from his grandmother, sat down in a chair and plugged in his earbuds, staring at his phone. "I thank you," the grandmother said to Nathaniel.

A distraught mother of five was there with her 14-year-old son, who has racked up 52 unexcused absences and 11 tardies this year.

"I've been trying to get him to go to school," the mother told Nathaniel. "He says the school is too chaotic, he can't learn anything. I've been calling programs - won't nobody help me."

Her son, who at 14 is still in middle school, leaned against a wall, eyes on the floor. When Nathaniel asked what he enjoyed doing, he said he was good at fixing things, like computers.

Nathaniel told him about Camden County Technical School, where students focus on vocational trades. Would the boy's mother be willing to drive him there for a tour? The mother nodded. If he was motivated by what he saw, Nathaniel said, he would have to work to improve his grades and attendance if he wanted to enroll there.

"He's just a kid who's going through some difficult developmental challenges," Nathaniel told his mother later. "He's not a bad kid. He just needs to see a clear future. . . . I believe, with the right supports in place, he's goint to be all right."

asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @AESteele