Kopperud argues that spending money on social programs and counselors often results in dramatic attendance improvement, but he admits that when budget reductions are made, those same services are likely to be the first to go, such as is now the case in San Diego. "A lot of districts, when they have to cut back services, well, where do they cut them back? They cut them back from attendance supervisors, from counselors, from school nurses, from school psychologists, from social workers.
"Because a lot of the philosophy out there is, 'that's not instruction, and our primary obligation is to provide a teacher and curriculum, and this other stuff is secondary.' And so when they have to decide where they are going to cut, that's often where they cut, from student support services.
"But those student support services are critical in some school districts because the kids have non-academic barriers to success, and until you do something to alleviate the nonacademic barriers to success, you are never going to go as far as you could academically."
Kopperud points to Sacramento for what he calls a shining example of success. "They went from having three student-outreach workers to having 29 student-outreach workers. Their actual attendance improved in all grade levels. In kindergarten through 6th grade it was 93.69 percent, and it went to 94.9 percent. In 7th through 8th grades, it was 91.90 and it improved to 93.76. And in 9th through 12th it went from 89.25 to 90.95."
San Diego Unified's four-year-old "Targeted Truancy and Public Safety Program" was a similar attempt to deal with student absenteeism using various social services. But it was quietly dismantled this spring. Originally funded by a state grant, the district had assumed full financial responsibility for the $250,000 program this year. According to a school-district source, who requested not to be named, the program had been doing well, but administrators were not supportive and needed the money elsewhere.
"The targeted truancy program was one that provided intensive services to parents and kids," says the source. "They made a lot of home visits. For example, one parent had a huge tumor on her neck, and it was cancerous, and the parent didn't have any insurance. So they found doctors to do the surgery for free, and it helped and benefited that parent.
"Just recently they helped somebody locate housing and helped them move into that housing. We've had families that had been living in the back of U-Haul vans that they've been working with to try to get housing. If a child has some placement issues in schools, they would help with that, to make sure that the child is in the appropriate place for education.
"They provided intensive services where they saw these families weekly and sometimes daily. We had one case where a counselor who was assigned to the kid would meet them every morning on the corner and pick them up and take them to school. So he would get to school six weeks straight and then try to ease them into taking public transportation. Now that's all gone."
Program staffers, already reeling from the loss of their jobs, were taken aback by the district's sudden truancy sweep, says this source. "I have no idea where that came from. When you are dealing with complex issues, you have to deal with what those issues are. Just having a sweep is not going to make that go away. I have not heard anything about the attendance rates falling -- I'm in the dark on those numbers -- but I wouldn't be surprised. Right now, we're starting to get more referrals of cases into the school-attendance review board. We're getting a lot more of those cases, so it wouldn't surprise me that attendance rates are down."
No one at the district, according to the source, was privy to the details of the truancy raid, not even the staff of the school-attendance review board. "We weren't involved in that. The only thing I know was that the city attorney looked at bench warrants, and they decided they wanted to have a bench-warrant sweep, so I learned about it the day before it was going to happen. I don't know what motivated them to do it.
"I would guess, we've had a lot of changes in our district. Those may have some impact on students and whether or not they continue school or not. There is a lot of stress on them. I don't know how many kids are going to summer school, and all those things, and whether or not they are showing up. Those are things we are going to have to go and look at.
"But look, if the kid doesn't have shoes and they don't have clothes, then you gotta get shoes and clothes if that's the issue that's keeping them from school. If they don't have food, then you gotta figure out how to help them be able to have food. If it's transportation, then you gotta deal with the transportation issue.
"If there is a cultural issue -- as we find sometimes when we look at immigrants coming into the country and the child becoming more Americanized, and the child not speaking the language of the parent or not wanting to follow traditional values that the parent might have -- that causes some conflict, and so you have to deal with those conflicts.
"If the issues are with drugs and alcohol in the home, then you have to deal with that, whether that's the parent or the kid. We've had families where illness was an issue, where depression was an issue, or where the parent is dying of AIDS or some other disease, and the child is afraid to leave that parent to go to school because they don't know if that parent is going to be there when they get back. That means you need to deal with hospice and try and get some other agencies involved. So I think it's a lot of collaboration with many community agencies. I don't think the schools can do it all themselves."