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Getting Truants Back on Course

Santa Paula: Task force aims to identify problem cases early and keep at-risk students on track to a high school diploma.


It's 11:30 a.m., and Santa Paula Police Officer Michelle Velasco stands at the door of the mobile home, knocking.

She rings the doorbell. She knocks again.

After about five minutes, a teenager saunters to the door.

"Hi," the 34-year-old officer says. "Why aren't you in school?"

The boy tells Velasco he was sick. He got food poisoning, and that's why he hasn't been to class in two weeks.

It's a line she's heard before.

"You look OK now," she says. "Why don't I give you a ride there?"

This is what she does. Student by student, home by home, she has spent the last two years trying to keep Santa Paula's most at-risk teenagers in class.

Now, school officials are working to connect her daily efforts in combating truancy with a broader, more long-term project: attacking the root problems they believe cause many students to give up on high school.

Velasco is part of a new task force in Santa Paula that joins people from law enforcement, courts, school districts and social service agencies to tackle issues facing at-risk youth.

The goal, officials said, is to steer young people away from drugs and violence and give them the support they need to make it through high school. That goal will only get more difficult in two years, when students will be forced to pass a rigorous high school exit exam before they can graduate.

"If they can just finish, then they at least have that high school diploma to fall back on," Velasco said. "We are trying to ensure that more kids get that chance."

Last year, a record number of ninth-graders were expelled from Santa Paula High School--many within the first few days of classes, said district Supt. Bill Brand.

Although the numbers were comparatively small--25 students out of 1,200--they jolted him.

After all, these were 13- and 14-year-old kids, Brand said. Typically, the school expels eight to 10 students a year.

"All expulsion does is take the student and put him out of the system," he said. "That's not doing anything for the community or the student."

Although expelled students can continue their educations at alternative schools, it's harder to keep track of their progress.

Because education codes mandate that students be expelled for certain crimes, Brand said his only choice was to work on the issues at the front end through the task force.

The effort is divided into four areas: improving school attendance, reducing substance abuse, preventing violence and increasing parent involvement.

Strategies include personal attendance plans for every child beginning in sixth grade, creation of nonviolent conflict management and peer mediation programs at all schools, support groups for young students and regular parent training sessions.

The group is still planning how to implement many of the ideas. But signs of change are evident at Santa Paula High.

Two weeks before classes began this year, the school held an information session for parents, telling them their rights and responsibilities related to truancy, that drew hundreds.

And an improved system of tracking absent students that Velasco developed over the summer has enabled her to catch habitually truant students much sooner.

In the past, a teenager could skip class dozens of times before anyone in the attendance office noticed, Velasco said. By that point, it was often too late to get the student back on track.

Velasco said the Ventura County district attorney's office is a key partner in the project. In the last two years, it has stepped up efforts to prosecute truant students and their parents.

The truancy policies should get even more enforcement capability this year, Velasco said, because the high school created its own student attendance review board--a panel of adults that puts students on contracts and imposes sanctions in an attempt to keep them going to school. Sanctions might include fines, community service or mandatory tutoring.

Parents, meanwhile, could be fined or sentenced to parenting classes.

Velasco, barely 5 feet 2 and seven months' pregnant, said she needs that backing when she goes around Santa Paula knocking on doors. That is why the task force is so important, she said.

"It seems there were some holes, but we have spent some time patching up those holes, and making sure we don't lose anyone through the cracks," she said. "It seems to be working."

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