Skipping school may have once been viewed as a relatively small transgression committed by all capricious youth at least some point in their lives, but some San Francisco students today have taken it to a new level that is anything but innocuous. The days of Ferris Bueller-like escapades have lost their novelty, and for the repeat offenders of San Francisco’s beleaguered public school system, truancy is considered a crime.
Which is exactly why the system is getting money to make sure students stay in school. San Francisco has the worst truancy record in the state, but recent citywide efforts, including parental prosecution, have appeared to be working, prompting more federal dollars to be funneled to the cause, spurring the launch of more programs to combat truancy. The anti-truancy program at Bayview Hunters Point YMCA – which has served 124 formerly truant teens since its inception two years ago – will receive $238,000 over two years, enabling it to help more students at a time trying to re-enter school.
And if more kids are staying in school, the district gets more federal dollars – over $370,000 was tied to increased enrollment in San Francisco public schools last year.
Mayor Gavin Newsom launched the new Truancy Assessment and Referral Center (TARC) January 15 to address chronic truancy and close the achievement gap in San Francisco schools. TARC will be a citywide, one-stop location at 44 Gough St, allowing police to hand off truant youth to the San Francisco Unified School District and community-based organizations. TARC will assess youth – who are put on a "most wanted" list for truancy – and make the appropriate referrals to reengage them in the academic process. This innovative collaboration is the first-in-the-nation project that leverages existing city resources to specifically target young people who are chronically absent. It is also partnered with SF Juvenile Probation Department (SFJPD), San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), Department of Children, Youth, and their Families (DCYF), Huckleberry Youth Services, and Urban Service YMCA.
“The 21st century economy demands an educated, prepared workforce,” Newsom said in a statement. “We must rise to this challenge and close the graduation gap that afflicts underprivileged communities in San Francisco.” (Newsom will speak at The Commonwealth Club on April 7, discussing a range of his citywide programs in a conversation with Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy.)
Though this comprehensive program has thus far been successful, 5,000 kids are still not coming to class on a regular basis, a staggering number that is, remarkably, down from 5,500 – 10 percent of the city's students – in 2007 when District Attorney Kamala Harris started fighting the issue in earnest by implementing the Truancy Reduction Initiative and set up one of the first truancy courts in California. Harris has made combating truancy a main focus of her administration, after learning about four years ago that 94 percent of the city’s homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school dropouts, most of which had problems starting at the elementary level.
“As San Francisco’s District Attorney, I see what happens on the back end of school failures: young lives are being lost to street violence or prison time at an appalling rate,” said Harris in a statement. “Children will either get their education in the streets or in school. Combating truancy is a smart approach to crime prevention.” Harris plans to take her initiative statewide – if she wins the election for the California attorney general.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "students with the highest truancy rates have the lowest academic achievement rates, and because truants are the youth most likely to drop out of school, they have high drop-out rates as well." It is estimated that that high school dropouts cost Californians over $46 billion over the lifetimes of the 120,000 students who fail to graduate from each class, including nearly $10 billion from increased crime alone. By addressing truancy, the city hopes to close the graduation gap. In San Francisco last year, 32% of African American, and 19% of Caucasian and Latino students didn’t graduate public high school.
The Commonwealth Club will host a special program on keeping California's schools competitive. Learn more about the March 31, 2010, event.
--By Heather Mack
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