On average, children in the Mission District perpetually skip class or arrive late to school more frequently than students in the entire school district.

Schools in the Mission are also making significant strides to change that.

San Francisco Unified School District officials recently lauded significant declines in district-wide truancy rates. They pointed to a 12 percent reduction in the number of chronically and absent students enrolled in public schools between 2010-2011 academic year and 2011-2012 academic years. During that same time, however, schools in the Mission District decreased number of chronic and habitual absent students from 523 to 397 students, a decline of 24 percent in one year.

Tacing Parker, director of the Truancy Assessment and Resource Center (TARC), doesn’t have to see the data to know that the Mission District has one of the highest numbers of chronically truant students in the city. She can just assess her caseload.

“Most are from the Mission District,” she said. “It’s a targeted area. It’s consistent with what the school district sees as well.”

The “Mission Zone” as defined by the school district includes Bryant Elementary, Cesar Chavez Elementary, Leonard Flynn Elementary, John Muir Elementary, Everett Middle School, Buena Vista Horace Mann Middle School, Mission High School and John O’Connell High School.

TARC is a one-stop shop for helping prevent chronically and habitual truancy and getting students back on track to graduation. There are a number of reasons that the students in the Mission District struggle with attending classes, Parker said.

“What we found in our work is that a lot of students in Latin families live dual lives,” she said. “Not only are they normal high school students but they have to do some co-parenting and they have a lot of responsibilities.

Students whose parents don’t speak English or are undocumented citizens may not feel connected to the academic community, Parker said. It’s important to stress the importance of education at an early age so that students, upon entering middle school and high school, chose to make smart decisions, said Lois Perillo, a School Resource Officer at Everett Middle School and a San Francisco Police officer liaison to the school district.

Sometimes School Resource Officers visit the homes of students who show a pattern of not attending school. Counselors and other district employees who can help students get on the right track often accompany them.

If students develop a high absence rate by the fifth grade, no matter whether those absences are truant or excused, they have a greater chance of continuing that high absence rate throughout their middle school and high school careers, Perillo said.

“If the child is in school at their desk engaged, then they’re enhancing themselves,” she said. “If they’re not, they’re out on the street, potentially being a cause of something criminal, or at their home, but not improving academically. The advantage of having students in their seats learning is multifold.”

In fact, most of the chronically truant students at John O’Connell High School, for example, are not around the block during school hours smoking, said Principal Mark Alvarado. Most of the chronically truant cases at his school are working full-time or part-time jobs, he said. They’re taking care of their siblings. Maybe parents are no longer in the picture or they’re having trouble with transportation.

Truancy has a negative connotation, Alvarado said. Sure, a few students are skipping, plain and simple. But a majority of these truant students are working as hard or harder than their peers in the classroom helping to provide for their families, he said.

Technically, these hardworking students boost the truancy ratings at John O’Connell. But Alvarado couldn’t care less about that. What he cares about are solutions. If a student has as desire to earn a diploma or GED, that’s what’s important, Alvarado said. Finding solutions is what is most important.

“I’m not interested in dialogue about truancy when I can talk about flexible schedules for kids in trauma,” Alvarado said. “We can make it happen. It might not be at John O’Connell. It might be an evening program.”

As for the significant 24 percent decline in the number of chronically and habitual absent student in the Mission District in the past year, Alvarado said the answer is in the classroom. The high schools in the Mission District are trying to solve the truancy problem by focusing on the classroom, by offering more interesting and varied programs, which make students want to come to school, he said.

“That,” he said, “is where the success will happen.”

To see a larger image of the graph above, click here.

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