Addressing truancy is a high-stakes game for San Francisco

By: George Gascón and Carlos Garcia | 10/18/11 9:59 PM

AP file photo
Transitioning from middle school to high school can be a difficult time in a young person’s life. Last year, Jessica was an eighth-grader at an academic middle school in San Francisco. Challenged by family instability and little adult supervision, she missed almost half of her eighth-grade year.

During her freshman year at a large San Francisco high school, Jessica continued to experience difficulty both at home and at school. She skipped more than 350 classes during the year — 56 percent of her ninth-grade education. In the spring, school officials referred her to the District Attorney’s Office for Truancy Court, where she was connected to case managers at the Truancy Assessment and Resource Center and assigned to summer school to make up missed credits.

Jessica is now performing better academically, consistently attending school, and has even joined her school’s cheerleading squad. While we are proud of Jessica’s success, we want to do better — to help students such as Jessica succeed in high school from the very first day they pass through the door.

We know chronic truancy leads to dropping out of school. This is bad enough, but it can also lead a young person into the criminal justice system. Two-thirds of prison inmates are high school dropouts.

Research also shows that 94 percent of murder victims under the age of 25 in San Francisco are high school dropouts. It’s a high-stakes game to leave school without a diploma. That is why the San Francisco Unified School District and the District Attorney’s Office are furthering efforts to combat truancy by providing truancy prevention services directly at school sites — and surrounding students with support before their low attendance
jeopardizes their success.

A pilot program at Burton High School provides a new model of support for its incoming ninth-grade class. Supported by criminal justice funds from the District Attorney’s Office, the program is helping more than 20 formerly truant students successfully transition to high school.

From the very start of the school year, students have received individual case management and support from TARC. Case managers check in with students during the day at school — or at their homes if they are truant. They connect the students and their families to needed services.

The program is already seeing promising results. Since its launch in August, students in the Burton truancy pilot program are attending an average of 23 percent more school days than last year.

The partnership between the District Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco Unified School District to combat truancy began only four years ago. It already has resulted in a 33 percent reduction in the number of chronically and habitually truant students. Intervening directly at the school site with chronically truant students such as Jessica is one more critical step to ensuring that all students have the best chance at academic success, and that our students and communities are safe.
George Gascón is San Francisco’s district attorney. Carlos Garcia is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District