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The Truant Story

Absentee students mean reduced funding for schools, so district staff is hitting the streets in an effort to prod the worst offenders back in line.

September 23, 1998|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steering his gray sedan with one hand while reading names and addresses from computer printouts grasped firmly in the other, truant officer Herman Velarde turned up a narrow barrio street overlooking the Los Angeles River, near where he grew up.

"What keeps me going is that there are great kids around here," he said. "Not taking care of them would be like a farmer losing his crops. Lose your crops, nobody eats. Right?"

Not exactly tough words for a man whose job it is to prowl some of Los Angeles' toughest streets looking for Roosevelt High School students who felt they had better things to do than show up for homeroom class.

Indeed, Velarde has a style reminiscent of Mr. Rogers, and a penchant for punctuating his lectures with formulas for success, gentle proddings and words of wisdom from obscure sources.

To hear school officials tell it, he is one of the main reasons Roosevelt can boast of the most improved attendance rate in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Over the last year, Roosevelt's attendance increased by 5 percentage points, allowing it to jump from one of the worst in the district to one of the best.

"We've jacked up our attendance up to 88%, but that's not good enough," said Assistant Principal Paul Klein. "This year's goal is to hit 95% like the Westside schools."

Last summer, the school began rewarding students with constant homeroom attendance and a 2.0 grade-point average with perks like access to the cafeteria's express line, which can be a big advantage on the huge, crowded campus. At the same time, city and county prosecutors started warning parents that they face jail and fines if their children cut class.

Those moves were inspired by changes in state funding requirements. Until this year, schools received funding for every student in class as well as those with excused absences. Now, excused absences no longer count in tallying average daily attendance, and schools have a financial incentive to get students back into class.

Enter Velarde, a classical music enthusiast who was raised in Boyle Heights and graduated from Roosevelt High in 1954. As attendance officer, he tracks down and counsels the chronic truants who sneer at the incentives and legal threats.

A 19-year-old student called to Velarde's office tried to explain away more than three dozen absences by saying he liked to sleep late and watch sports programs on television. Velarde pulled a wrinkled paper covered with arrows and numerical formulas out of his desk drawer and pressed it flat with both hands on the tabletop.

"Pay attention to my self-discipline plan and you'll be getting A's and Bs in a matter of weeks," he said, reading from the paper.

With knitted eyebrows, the young man leaned over for a closer look.

"Listen hard and you'll get good marks in cooperation and work habits," Velarde said. "Attend school and you'll have zero absences. If you attend, you'll be able to listen. Be on time and you'll get zero tardies. Turn in all your work and study at home one hour a day. You'll get A's and Bs and a 3.5 grade-point average. Right?"

"Makes sense to me," the young man said.

"Remember," Velarde added, giving the student a friendly pat on the shoulder, "you can live without education. But you can live better with it. OK?"

Before his shift was up, Velarde would counsel dozens of parents and their children in his tiny, cluttered office near the school's main entrance, and visit a dozen Eastside homes where most parents hadn't a clue as to the whereabouts of their children.

Velarde's first house call: the apartment of a truant 14-year-old in Aliso Village. Windows are broken and the door is covered with graffiti. Nearby, a large banner strung between telephone poles implores, Cristo es todo y todo es Cristo. No lo mate. (Christ is everything and everything is Christ. Don't kill him.)

"He's not here because they locked him up a few days ago for violating curfew," the boy's mother said, trying hard to avoid eye contact with the visitor. "We're disappointed. But he can still be rescued. He's only 14."

"Yes," Velarde agreed. "He can be rescued."

Back in his car, Velarde said, "Let's head for Michigan Street. There's a 17-year-old girl there who has missed a lot of school. Maybe we'll get lucky and find her at home."

The girl was not there. But her mother promised to scold her daughter when she returned home that night.

Velarde thanked the woman profusely for her concern. Before leaving, he praised the beauty of a huge battered portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe that was nailed to a wall near a pile of dirty dishes in her small kitchen.

And so it went for the rest of the afternoon.

After 10 years as a truant officer, Velarde has compiled a list of 130 reasons students stay home from school. They include: sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, dysfunctional family, alcohol, drugs, gang violence, lack of friends, lack of confidence, lack of clean clothes, poor parental supervision, no analytical thinking skills, and rumors.

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