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Truancy Policy Paying Off at High School

Pilot program has reduced the number of students skipping class. It may be made permanent.


For the last several years, Santa Ana High School has been known for having the lowest attendance rate of any high school in the city.

Over the last two school years, however, the school's attendance rate has climbed from last place to first, thanks to a pilot program started in 1998 to encourage truant students to stay in class, school officials said.

A few years ago, about 10% of Santa Ana High's approximately 3,000 students could be expected to be truant on any given day, school officials said.

Although parents of truant children would be called, or in extreme cases, visited by a school counselor, many couldn't be reached and never knew their child was skipping school.

Under the new program, the school sends a series of warning letters to parents starting when a student racks up five or more absences in one semester.

After 10 and 15 absences, parents are contacted again.

Also, students who miss one class 10 times or more in one semester can still earn partial credit, which school officials say gives truant students a reason to keep coming to class.

In the past, students who were absent from one class more than 10 times often failed.

"What [the program] does is it gives them a light at the end of the tunnel," Assistant Principal Tom Hummel said.

Students are less likely to stop coming to class if they know they can keep an "F" off of their transcripts, he said.

In recent years, Southern California schools have been using more aggressive methods to keep children in school. At some schools, students with repeated absences can face fines or a loss of driving privileges. Last month, the Orange County district attorney's office took the unusual step of filing criminal charges against the parents of a 6-year-old Santa Ana girl who repeatedly skipped class.

At Santa Ana High, some teachers attributed the higher attendance rate directly to the school's new program.

During the first semester of the 1998-99 school year, more than 485 Santa Ana High students were absent 15 or more days, school officials said. Only 130 students were absent 15 or more days during the same period in the following year.

U.S. history and government teacher Dennis Arsenault, who helped design the program, said he's seen a dramatic improvement in attendance in his classroom and a more involved attitude among many parents.

"The attendance office is flooded with parents, and parents are calling classes to find out if their kids are there," he said.

Santa Ana High officials are hoping to make the program an official school policy during the coming school year. Last year, only about a third of the teachers volunteered to participate in the pilot program.

"We're holding kids accountable for attendance, and I think they respect that," Principal Dan Salcedo said. "They can't do well in school if they're not here."


Alex Katz can be reached at (714) 966-5977.

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