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For chronic truants, a GPS program can help them make the grade

Where curfews and fines have failed, Anaheim officials say GPS devices help keep students in class.

February 25, 2011|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times
  • Joshua Barron, 14, an eighth-grader at South Junior High School in Anaheim, says he doesn't like carrying his global positioning device because of its size but that it has prodded him to attend classes.
Joshua Barron, 14, an eighth-grader at South Junior High School in Anaheim,… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For the…)

Ryan Ramos' 6 a.m. routine used to consist of the usual: a shower, breakfast, then a walk to the bus stop.

But now, the 14-year-old eighth-grader has another activity: punching an identification code into a cell phone-size GPS device.

Five times a day — when he wakes up, when he gets to school, after lunch, after school and at 8 p.m. — Ramos is required to enter his code into the machine. If he's not where he's supposed to be, the GPS provides a way to find him.

Ramos and 31 other students in the Anaheim Union High School District are participating voluntarily in what some consider a cutting-edge solution to the age-old problem of truancy. Backers of the program hope that by giving parents and school officials a better idea of where students are — and by giving students a visible incentive to resist peer pressure to skip classes — the GPS can succeed where curfews, strict punishments and even fines for parents have failed.

The concept has critics who object to the Big Brother aspects of satellite monitoring.

"It's a criminalization of kids who have trouble getting to class every day," said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, director of the Orange County office of the ACLU of Southern California, who likened the program to the restrictions placed on probationers or those under house arrest.

But the idea also has believers. Although Anaheim is the first district in California to try the idea, cities elsewhere in the country, including San Antonio and Baltimore, have used GPS to chart the movements of chronic truants and say they have experienced considerable success.

In San Antonio, after a successful pilot program in 2008, the district has increased both the number of GPS units and mentors available to work with students at 22 schools. Grades improved and the attendance rate hit 97% for students in the program, officials said.

"It's not a panacea. It's not a silver bullet. It's not the end-all, be-all," said David Udovich, an administrator in the San Antonio Independent School District. "But it does help a lot of students. … Everybody's grades went up. I didn't think it would turn around that fast. Within six weeks, they went from failing to passing."

Ed Arevalo, a police investigator with the Anaheim Police Department, said that in middle school, truancy becomes a part of peer pressure. It's very popular to hang out with your friends and buck the system, he said.

Being saddled with a GPS can give students the excuse they need to abandon their friends and go to class instead, he said.

Educators and officials from the company that operates the GPS system — which, so far, is providing the GPS devices to the district for free — dismiss concerns about privacy. They say the program helps students attend more classes and do better in school. They also note that the program combines the GPS device with human interaction — mentors who check in with the students several times a week.

"It's so much bigger than GPS," said Travis Knox, president of the Dallas-based Aim Truancy Solutions.

"It's really that human element."

Under the state education code, persistent truancy can result in a $2,000 fine. Students must face a school attendance review board, which consists of the district attorney, the police department and school officials. In Anaheim, students with four or more unexcused absences can participate in the GPS program with parental approval.

Two weeks into the program, administrators say they already have seen a turnaround. Nearly all of the students have gone to class, with only five absences so far. If the experiment works, district officials said they might expand it.

Since the program began, Ramos said he's learning more than before. In English, he's looking forward to comprehending similes and metaphors. In science, his favorite subject, he's studying how solids and liquids form.

Ramos' mother, Maria Salazar, 47, said that in the past it was sometimes difficult to get her son to class, but the device has helped him get to school on time.

"It's a pretty good program," she said.

South Junior High Principal Chris Esperanza said the system provides another tool for parents who are too busy to monitor their children all the time. They might be working long hours. Or, in some cases, a single parent is trying to keep a household together.

"Parents do their best," he said. "Sometimes, that's not enough."

Patricia Garcia, a single mother with four children, said the GPS device carried by her 14-year-old son, Joshua Barron, relieves some of her worries.

"I would like for them to have it until they are 18," she said.

Joshua, an eighth-grader at South Junior High, said he doesn't like carrying the GPS because of its size but is beginning to see the benefits as the device has prodded him into going to classes.

"It's good for me," he said.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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