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County, Schools Consider Bringing Back Truancy Prevention Program

Newly designed tiers would focus on early intervention efforts and working together with students and parents

Truancy rates spiked after the Truancy Intervention and Parent Accountability Program was axed during budget cuts in 2008, so county and school district leaders are designing a new program that could be implemented for the 2012-13 school year.

Instead of having the District Attorney’s Office manage a countywide program, each district would create its own, similar program with help from a designated deputy district attorney and access to support services from county agencies.

There would be tiered levels focused on early intervention efforts to avoid enforcement — notification letters sent to parents, mandatory after-school meetings for parents and students, truancy mediation team meetings and School Attendance Review Board meetings that could lead to enforcement efforts against the student or parents.

The first intervention — the notification letters — is triggered when a student has three days, or 18 class periods, of unexcused absences.

This approach was suggested by the Board of Supervisors subcommittee with Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Steve Lavagnino, county Superintendent of Schools Bill Cirone and each district’s superintendent, District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Senior Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss, Probation Chief Beverly Taylor and Sheriff Bill Brown.

The partnership was reborn when the County Civil Grand Jury found that truancy rates increased 48 percent when the District Attorney-run program ended, according to Dennis Bozanich, assistant to the county executive officer. The Grand Jury’s report reiterated the need for a program based on family involvement, collaboration between intervention services to get to the root of the problem, and measurable goals.

Auchincloss said common standards will be important, but each district can tailor the program to its own needs.

“We have been frustrated at times because of a problem we couldn’t fix because of (our department’s) responsibilities, but this time things were different,” Dudley said. “We looked at a higher goal, a higher role and we did it for the sake of our children. We’re not just talking about lowering our truancy rate and keeping our kids in school; we’re talking about taking that alienated student and bringing them back into the fold, getting them passionate in school again.”

Brown noted that 70 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts, so a foundation of good attendance would greatly increase a student’s chance at success.

The Board of Supervisors spoke out in support of the program at its meeting on Tuesday and will consider funding the $170,000 for a dedicated deputy district attorney and support staff member to oversee the program during its budget hearings.

“For every day you miss, your test scores go down a relative amount,” Lavagnino said. On the county cost, he added: “You don’t really look at the price of something, you look at the total cost; the cost not to do it is substantially more. Just to move a few kids out of a life of sitting at home, doing nothing, getting out there committing property crimes, getting involved in a life of crime — I really think this will be money well spent.”

Carbajal said the point is really to get to the bottom of why students are being skipping school. He also thanked Dudley, who promised to bring the program back after being elected.

“This lady, when she got into office, she said she would bring it back and she brought it back,” he told Noozhawk after the meeting.

Dudley said the programs aren’t likely to go anywhere if the county supervisors don’t fund the designated deputy district attorney position, which would help design the truancy prevention programs and connect students and families to county services.

“I think their hearts are in the right place,” she said. “I hope the board is not just supporting the program in spirit, but with funding.”

The biggest district in the South County is ready to participate. At the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, Superintendent Dave Cash explained the program and said the county needs to know whether the district wants to participate.

Every member on the board exclaimed “We’re in!” at the same time.

Cash said he was a high school principal when the old program existed, and said there would be more focus on intervention and making services available to families that have trouble getting their children to school. It would be much more flexible this time, too, he said. Schools could focus on K-12 students, not just secondary, and draft their own letters to parents instead of using the same District Attorney letterhead that every other county school did.

The old program “jumped so quickly to the threat of jail,” board member Kate Parker recalled. “The first letter parents would get would say, ‘By the way, if you don’t get this taken care of immediately, you could be faced with jail time.’ For our own district we can write it the way we want to, and point to the support piece first. The last resort, SARB subpoena level is even still a huge support process.”

Districts would send out informational letters in both languages, so they should be culturally sensitive and invite a conversation, board member Monique Limon said, adding that he basic message would be that the district wants to help families get their students to school and keep them in school.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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