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On the morning of June 7, at least 25 police officers, social workers, and prosecutors, accompanied by a horde of television and print reporters, rolled out of a police substation in one of the poorest parts of San Diego. Fanning out across the neighborhoods of Paradise Hills, Grant Hill, City Heights, and elsewhere, the carefully orchestrated raid targeted 20 hapless parents who had failed to show up in court to answer for their children's truancy. This raid was staged by the office of Casey Gwinn, San Diego's politically ambitious city attorney, with the cooperation of the San Diego Unified School District. Hours later, six mothers were behind bars at county jail, and their children were parked, at least temporarily, with relatives or county social workers.

It was the first time in recent memory that such draconian measures have been taken to deal with what has long been one of the dirty little secrets of San Diego public schools: closely held statistics show that average daily attendance rates at many schools have been plunging for the last three years, and the trend shows no sign of abating. Yet, just weeks before Gwinn's office and San Diego police rounded up parents from some of San Diego's poorest neighborhoods, the school district quietly abolished its so-called "Targeted Truancy and Public Safety Program," a four-year-long effort to get to the root of the festering problem of absentees. Staffers in the office will not talk for the record, but some inside the district claim that the $250,000 used to run the program was needed to balance a badly out of kilter school-district budget.

Though the public has not been made privy to the disastrous attendance numbers, school-district officials have been huddling behind closed doors, worried because the attendance fall-off translates into a big drop in the cash payments the district receives from the state. The amount of money is pegged to average daily attendance rates, and the decline in this year's ADA could cost the San Diego district millions of dollars.

That's the real inspiration, some school staffers claim, for the Gwinn-led raid. Others say that San Diego police have lately become interested in using anti-truancy actions as a way to deal with newly rising crime rates and forcing juvenile delinquents back into school and off the streets.

San Diego police officers are active attendees at the school district's School Attendance Review Board (SARB), which decides which parents are to be issued citations, and have gone so far as to host SARB meetings at the city's four police substations, giving the group a tougher, pro-law enforcement cast.

The school-attendance numbers look bad across the board, but worse at schools in traditionally poorer neighborhoods, led by high schools like San Diego (87.29 percent), Hoover (87.37), Clairemont (87.66), Kearny (88.17), and Lincoln (89.14). The problem isn't limited to students at the poverty level. Attendance at both Point Loma and Clairemont High Schools is also below the 90 percent level. Nor are the district's elementary schools immune from the trend. Fletcher (83.92 percent), Cubberly (86.42 percent), and Dana (86.45 percent) are all found at the bottom of the list.

By comparison, schools in Orange County, Sacramento, and across the nation regularly boast attendance rates in the mid-90s. High schools in Fullerton and Sacramento report rates of 97 percent. Even states generally regarded as educational backwaters regularly post high rates, and some of America's worst inner-city schools have been doing better than San Diego. For instance, East St. Louis, a slum-ridden Illinois city across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, has a rate of 87.6 percent. St. Louis itself reports a rate of 89.3 percent. Public school attendance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is at 88 percent. At Oak Ridge High in Tennessee, attendance stands at 92 percent. At Jordan High, in Durham, North Carolina, it is 95 percent.

Opinions differ among experts about what level of average daily attendance signifies a true educational crisis, but it is generally agreed that San Diego has fallen into the danger zone. "Really bad attendance is 78 percent," says David Kopperud, a specialist with the California Department of Education. "Anytime you are anywhere near the 70s you are heading for big trouble and the 80s certainly aren't that great either." One of the worst school districts in California, Kopperud says, is Los Angeles Unified, where attendance regularly hovers slightly below 80 percent. "They lose $34 million a year" in state attendance payments, he notes. "You want to have a goal of being over 96 percent; that's good. If you're under that, you really need to work."

Paradoxically, says Kopperud, efforts to boost school test results often tempt school officials into discouraging disadvantaged pupils from attending school. "There are districts right now where the main focus is on test scores. And there's kind of an irony that happens here. These kids with poor attendance, a lot of principals hesitate to try to get them back into school because these kids are not going to bring up their test scores. And a lot of these principals feel that they're being really measured by how well their students score on tests.

"Well, if they go out and they collect all the kids that have awful attendance and bring them into their school, what's going to happen to their test scores? Their test scores are going to go down. So there's been a lot of talk about maybe one of the ways we ought to judge schools is not just by their tests but also by their attendance. And the problem with that is you have some communities where attendance is naturally high, where it's almost a given you're going to have 98 percent attendance, and there are others where it's miserable."

The discrepancy between San Diego haves and have-nots is made clear in the geographically differing attendance rates of its schools. Though no San Diego Unified high schools meet Kopperud's ideal 96 percent, Mira Mesa High, which has consistently hovered around 95 percent, comes close. Then comes Scripps Ranch at 94 percent, and La Jolla at 93.67. A few elementary schools, like Birney, with 98.84 percent and Johnson, at 96.54 percent, actually exceed the state guidelines. Most in the southern part of the district, however, fall woefully short, in some cases a full ten points below their northern peers.

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."

-- Matt Potter

San Diego Middle Schools,

Average Daily Attendance Below 90 Percent

School 1998­99 1999­00 2000­01

Roosevelt 89.00 88.19 88.21

Clark 89.80 91.61 89.06

Kroc 91.17 92.39 89.56

San Diego High Schools,

Average Daily Attendance Below 90 Percent

School 1998­99 1999­00 2000­01

Gompers 85.77 84.68 81.96

San Diego 90.80 90.36 87.29

Hoover 87.95 89.14 87.37

Clairemont 85.20 87.77 87.66

Kearny 89.37 90.34 88.17

Lincoln 87.41 84.67 89.14

Point Loma 91.52 91.24 89.90

Madison 89.72 89.61 88.97

San Diego Elementary Schools,

Average Daily Attendance Below 90 Percent

School 1998­99 1999­00 2000­01

Fletcher 84.43 93.12 83.92

Cubberly 92.09 94.94 86.42

Dana 92.31 87.85 86.45

Florence 91.45 92.42 88.96

Perkins 91.02 89.69 88.97

Sequoia 91.06 94.51 89.08

Horton 92.09 91.69 89.21

North Park 85.60 95.58 89.21

Dailard 92.12 94.21 89.21

Fulton 95.01 92.85 89.56

Emerson 90.02 91.03 89.85

San Diego High Schools,

Highest Average Daily Attendance

School 1998­99 1999­00 2000­01

Mira Mesa 95.10 94.79 95.23

Scripps Ranch 94.04 93.92 94.02

La Jolla 95.53 93.06 93.67

University City 93.03 93.11 93.29

Henry 91.75 94.31 92.47

SCPA 92.49 111.55 91.89

Mission Bay 91.54 91.28 91.86

Serra 92.24 91.90 91.82

Morse 93.24 92.97 91.05

National and California

Daily Attendance Examples

City Average Daily Attendance

East St. Louis, Illinois 87.6

Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania 88.0

St. Louis City, Missouri 89.3

Lancaster, California 89.5

Hillside High, Durham, North Carolina 90.0

Southern High, Durham, North Carolina 92.0

Oak Ridge High, Knoxville, Tennessee 92.0

Jordan High, Durham, North Carolina 95.0

Houston High, Texas 93.4

Buena Park High, California 93.7

Simi Valley High, California 94.5

Fullerton Union, Fullerton, California 94.6

La Habra High, California 95.1

Sunny Hills High, Fullerton, California 96.9

Laguna Creek High School, Sacramento, California 96.9

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