With the bravado of a general preparing to lead soldiers into battle, Mayor Street yesterday swore in 71 new parent truant officers to combat the city school district's chronic truancy problem.
"Getting these young people in school and getting them constructively engaged is the most important thing we can do, because if they drop out of school they're dropping on those corners," Street bellowed during the ceremony outside City Hall.
He and other officials, including Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty pledged their support to the parent officers, who will make $9 an hour.
Street also leveled with the mostly female parent officers, telling them that as they travel the city visiting the homes of chronic truants they might encounter uncooperative parents. But he assured them that if needed, the Police Department would back them up.
"If we have to send a police officer out there to knock on the doors with you, we intend to send the message that every child must go to school. Every child, every day," Street said, drawing whoops from the parents.
Some parents said they had put aside concerns for their safety.
"I'm covered with the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ," said LaVerne Preston Floyd, 46, a grandmother of four students. "All you have to do is have a positive attitude, and if you see that they are not accepting, tell them what you can do for them or connect them with someone else who can help."
Michelle Smith, 45, said 18 years reading meters for Philadelphia Gas Works has prepared her for the canvassing work.
"I think I can help make things better. Even if I just touch one life, it's better than none at all," Smith said prior to the speeches.
The Street administration has committed to spend $3 million this year to hire 400 additional parent officers, which would boost the number to 500.
Yesterday's new hires will be followed shortly by 29 more to complete the second round of hiring. During the first round, last month, 125 parent officers were hired. The process is now underway to hire the final 175 parents to reach the 400-officer target, Street's spokesman Joe Grace said.
School district data indicates that during the 2005-06 school year 16,837 students were absent without an excuse on a typical day. That represented 9.5 percent of the entire student population of 175,800.
Dougherty said that students who are absent eight or more days will be hauled into his court.
"Our mission is to make sure our children graduate and go to State College [where Penn State is located] instead of State Road, where our prisons are," he said.