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EDUCATION

Schools Trying Personal Approach to Combat Truancy

September 28, 1998|REGINA HONG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA PAULA — One balmy afternoon, Lalo Alvarado carefully reviews the day's attendance sheets from his office at Glen City elementary school. He has already noted which youngsters have unexcused absences.

Alvarado will call their parents. He may even drive to their homes to find out what is wrong. But if the problem is deep-rooted, he will look for more far-reaching answers.

"We don't want to just pick them up and bring them back," Alvarado said. "That way they'll still miss school again. We try to get down to the problem."

In the Santa Paula Elementary School District, a student's repeated absence isn't met with just an occasional letter home. Each campus has hired someone like Alvarado--a full-time "outreach consultant" charged with caring enough about students that the students, in turn, care to attend school.

"This guy, he works wonders with the kids," said parent Lupe Ontiveros. One young family member who attends the school "really looks up to him," she said.

Alvarado last year worked with the boy, who would scream and cry in the morning to avoid going to class. If Ontiveros took him to school, the child threatened to leave, fought with other students and frequently had temper tantrums. Sometimes Ontiveros grew so weary she would give in and let him stay home.

Noticing the frequent absences and outbursts, Alvarado began working closely with the boy. His role wasn't to punish the child. Alvarado wanted to earn his trust. The two became friends while playing games in Alvarado's office. Alvarado had frequent talks with the youngster and set him up with a therapist.

The temper tantrums became far less frequent. The absences tapered off. "Me as a parent, I don't know what to do," Ontiveros said. "But this guy works with him. Hey, a parent appreciates it."

The state began a program 13 years ago to hire consultants such as Alvarado after the passage of a bill sponsored by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) aimed at curbing dropout rates. The state earmarked $9 million this year for the program, said Marco Orlando, the state's program consultant for the Dropout Prevention and Recovery Act.

Consultants Give Kids Extra Help

The bill's authors wanted someone "to care about kids and encourage the school culture to change its attitude about kids who are not successful," Orlando said.

To that end, consultants may have a number of programs to keep students interested in school.

Alvarado, for example, conducts tutoring sessions and homework clubs after school. He oversees periods where students develop ways to solve their own attendance problems. Once a year he takes some students to college football games to let them have fun and think about pursuing higher education.

Alvarado especially believes in the power of sports to motivate students.

"Sometimes the only reason they come is because they want to play something," said Alvarado, who coaches soccer and flag football games for the children during lunch periods.

In California, 205 schools received the grant money this year, largely to hire such consultants.

The Santa Paula elementary and Oxnard high school districts are the only ones in Ventura County that hire the workers under this state program.

Oxnard High has one full-time outreach consultant. The rest of the schools in the district share two other part-time consultants hired under a separate state grant.

School officials say the efforts of the consultants help cut dropout rates. Santa Paula's high school dropout rate in 1996-97, for example, was 2.2%--well below the state average of 3.3%.

The school districts that receive the grant send the state a yearly report marking their progress or setbacks.

Glen City, for example, reported increasing its attendance rate by 0.6% to 96.3% this year.

Suspensions also dropped from 16 to 14 students last year.

The small increases may not seem astounding, but the victories for the consultants are counted student by student.

Many Reasons for Truancy

"Sometimes you get frustrated," Alvarado said. "But when you see one, two, three students being successful, it feels good."

Simple poverty can be a reason for missing school.

"You open the fridge and you'll see beans and nothing else, no bread," said Alvarado, recalling a visit to the home of one absent student.

Sometimes paychecks don't come in time to purchase food, or needed school clothing and worn-out shoes, or medicine for a sick family member, consultants said.

They often try to link the families with agencies that can help. Other times they provide the families with what they need directly.

For emergencies, Alvarado has a shelf full of clothes--extra uniforms, an orange sweater, a red-and-white striped shirt--he has collected from teachers, administrators and Santa Paula residents.

Other times, attendance problems are deep-rooted and take years to resolve.

Tommy Frutos, a consultant at Santa Paula's Barbara Webster elementary school, remembers one third-grader he worked with three years ago.

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