The girl had been absent from classes at Memorial Junior High School for 15 days, so guidance aide Lucia Arias showed up at the well-kept Southeast San Diego house after telephone attempts to contact the parents proved fruitless.
No sooner had the school official been invited to sit on the living room couch than the mother burst into tears, placing her head onto the shoulder of Arias as she lamented her inability to keep her 14-year-old ninth-grader from spending time with an older boyfriend rather than going to school.
The mother had even quit her job in an effort to keep closer tabs on the child but to no avail, and she now worried that her two younger children could follow a similar pattern of absences.
Arias asked for the family's telephone number because the one provided the school by the girl was wrong. She told the mother to call the school any time the daughter was absent, and she gave the mother her home number.
Back at Memorial later in the day, Arias spoke with the school's special counselor about sitting down with the girl to find out the underlying problems in her attitude toward school and to arrange a conference with the mother as well.
"I feel bad for the mother," Arias said. "I try not to get too involved in (these cases), but sometimes these people don't have anyone to turn to."
Such is the daily world of Arias, who serves Memorial as a modern version of the school truant officer. She travels the residential streets of Barrio Logan and Southeast, going to as many as 25 homes a day to find out why a child has not been attending school.
The purpose is not that of the traditional punitive role of a truant officer toward children and parents. Rather, it is to use personal contact both to show that Memorial cares about its students and to emphasize that consistent school attendance is critical for any success in education.
The effort of Arias is vital to hopes of San Diego city school administrators for a turnaround of educational programs at Memorial.
72% of Students Latino
It's a school where 72% of students are Latino, where at least a quarter of the students are either not fluent in English or are still uncomfortable using the language, where more than a third of all families receive public assistance, and where 60 out of every 100 students who begin in September are not there in June, having transferred or simply disappeared because of the area's high transiency rate that stems from the economic uncertainties facing parents.
For the past two years, the school district has pumped substantial amounts of special funding into Memorial to set up a strong academic program, along with extra tutoring, study skills classes, tighter security, and motivational strategies for children whose school experiences have been less than ideal.
Principal Tony Alfaro has placed an equal emphasis on improving the school's attendance picture. Three years ago, 13% of the student body was absent on any given day, and of those absent, 57% had provided no valid excuse; they fell into the truant category.
Such a large number of absences not only means that less learning is taking place but also costs the school state funds, which provide the majority of education support these days. The state will not pay for a student absent without a proper excuse, and Memorial was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly for the district.
"If I want the staff to work hard with kids, I need to do everything to get the kids into class and understand that attendance is not a joke," Alfaro said.
Today, after two years of close attention to checking on each and every student absent on a given day, Memorial's truancy rate is 17%, meaning that of every 100 absences, only 17 are without valid excuses. Total absences are down as well, with only about 90 students out of a 1,000-person student body gone daily, about 9%.
Memorial's truancy rate is now below the district average of 19% and below the rate of such schools as Clairemont and La Jolla highs, which average about 25% unverified absences each.
Though not confined to schools in poorer socioeconomic areas, the truancy problem tends to affect those schools the most and demands constant attention to keep under control.
For example, the Sweetwater Union High School District, which covers many of South Bay's less-affluent areas, has an almost 60% truancy rate among its total absences and wants desperately to cut the number. And many administrators are looking at the Memorial example to find out what can be done.
"The key is parent involvement, to communicate to them why it is important for their kids to come to school," Alfaro said. "They've got to be convinced, and the only way (in many cases) is to visit them personally, especially since many homes have no phones."