By Nicole Harris-Crest, CFCC Student Fellow 2012-2013
The Center for Children, Families, and the Courts (CFCC) Truancy Court Program (TCP) uses early intervention to address the problems that underlie truancy. Each week, TCP staff meet with students who are “soft” truants, having between five to twenty unexcused absences in a semester. The goal of the program is to prevent truancy and promote values, such as education, discipline and respect. By instilling these values, TCP staff hope to prevent students from leading a life of delinquency, crime, and violence. Thus far, the TCP has been successful as an early intervention program, particularly in elementary and middle schools. In the Fall 2011 session, the TCP saw an average reduction in unexcused absences of 71%. The question remains, however, whether an early intervention model, such as the TCP, can achieve similar success in high schools.
This year, the TCP participates in three high schools. One of these high schools is Patterson High School. Patterson and TCP staff face a number of challenges as they seek to prevent truancy. These challenges are not unique to Patterson but occur in countless Baltimore City public high schools. Of those Patterson students participating in the TCP, many are ninth grade repeaters, who struggle with paying attention in the classroom, and who have more than twenty absences in a semester. Like many Baltimore City students, they also cope with issues of violence, drugs, and poverty on a daily basis. It is undeniable that some intervention is needed to assist these students. The disputed issue is exactly what kind.
Many argue that high school students no longer benefit from the skills and techniques used in early invention programs. Some techniques used by the TCP include: providing students with resources, such as alarm clocks, organizers, or bus passes; completing character building exercises where students are encouraged to have a positive attitude; and engaging in discussions on basic life skills, such as organization and time management. By high school, however, students often develop a serious history and pattern of truancy. In addition, many suffer from behavior problems and lack respect for authority figures. These are problems that go beyond what can be addressed in weekly TCP meetings.
Early invention models may not be the answer to preventing truant behavior in high school students. That said, the TCP is the only program of its kind in the Baltimore City Public Schools. As the TCP already has a long-standing history of preventing truancy and because TCP staff continuously study this issue, the best solution may be to modify the program to meet the needs of high school students.
One way to modify the program is to decrease the number of program participants in a given high school. Often ten students from a school are selected to participate in the TCP. By offering the program to fewer students, TCP staff can devote more time and attention to students’ needs. Although the TCP may not impact as many students, it may influence those students with greater issues and those more likely to engage in delinquency, violence, or criminal behavior in the future. Another option is to provide students with rigorous mentorship opportunities, where mentors take the time to speak with students regarding their academics, friends, home life, and problems. The TCP meets weekly with ten students for one hour. Thus, students are not given a great deal of one-on-one attention. Mentors can visit students in school, commit to monthly outings, and communicate with students by phone on a weekly basis. The TCP also must develop a plan of action to address substance abuse issues.
A majority of high school students are substance abusers. Bringing in substance abuse counselors, or perhaps former drug dealers or users, during TCP sessions may benefit students greatly. Finally, active parent involvement should be required for high school students to participate in the TCP. Although parents are required to sign a permission slip and consent to their child’s participation, it is equally important that parents attend at least one TCP session. It is important that parents reinforce the values and skills taught during the program. Without parental involvement, students could easily attend the TCP with little to no improvement. Students must know their parents are also committed to their academic success.
Baltimore City Public Schools face an up-hill battle in the challenge to educate high school students. Many high school students have developed negative behaviors that are very difficult to break. Currently, Baltimore City Public Schools are not equipped to deal with some of the profound and complex issues students face. It would be a disservice to our children, however, not to at least try. Communities, parents, grandparents, churches, and other organizations must work together to combat this challenge. Moreover, early invention programs, such as the TCP, must use their knowledge about truancy and the behaviors that underlie it to help save our youth.