By LESLIE COLLINS
June 5, 2013
Over the years, Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) has struggled with its attendance rate – it’s one reason the district lost its state accreditation.
However, Kansas City Public Schools is beginning to see success with its truancy sweeps and the city’s newly established truancy court at Kansas City Municipal Court.
Attendance is becoming even more vital, now that the state is changing its attendance rate standards. Instead of evaluating a school district’s average attendance rate, Missouri now requires 90 percent of a district’s students to attend school 90 percent of the time. KCPS must also decrease its drop out rate by 5 percent, said Dr. Louis Cordoba, KCPS executive director of Student Intervention Programs. Although data is still being compiled, Cordoba said KCPS will surpass the 5 percent rate as a result of the district’s efforts.
Last year, KCPS and the Hickman Mills School District requested the city take action regarding truancy, and as a result the city passed a daytime truancy ordinance which gave city prosecutors an outlet for prosecuting parents and guardians of chronically truant students.
Between October 2012 and May 2013, KCPS conducted 11 truancy sweeps, with most of them concentrated in the Historic Northeast area. KCPS focused the sweeps in the Northeast due to the number of complaints from Northeast residents regarding truant students committing crimes like vandalism and burglary, Cordoba said.
During the sweeps Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) officers picked up 187 truant students, all of whom were in the seventh through 12th grades with the exception of one fifth grader. KCPD issued 130 citations and of those, 126 were for KCPS students and four were for Raytown School District students.
Before sending parents and students to court, KCPS exhausts all possible resources, like face-to-face meetings with the students, phone calls to parents, parent conferences, sending social workers to homes and connecting families to needed resources.
Asked if truancy court has been successful, Cordoba said, “I feel it in my soul and I feel it in my bones. I think we’re on the right track, working together, opening communication. I just can’t give enough credit to Judge Bland. He opened the door for this program.”
For truancy court, parents/guardians along with the truant student are required to appear in court. Students’ attendance rates have ranged from 30 percent to 80-some percent. Once in court, Presiding Municipal Judge Ardie Bland reviews a student’s file and caters his talks to individual students. Sometimes he uses scare tactics, like placing the students in handcuffs in front of family members and giving the students a quick tour of the holding cell, providing a glimpse into what their life will be like if they continue to skip school.
“It’s very cold and dark. It’s not nice at all,” Bland said of the holding cell. “Nobody would want to stay there.”
For the first appearance in court, Bland gives a warning and the ticket is dismissed. The second time could mean participation in a diversion program or a fine up to $500. No fines have been issued to date.
“It’s not meant to be punitive,” Bland said. “It’s meant to get kids back in school and operating again. That’s the concept of the program – not to go around punishing parents or grandparents.”
Bland rarely has to see a student twice, he said. When he does, he’ll give another warning or try to connect the student and family to needed services. Issuing a fine is a last resort, said Abby Mueller, assistant city prosecutor.
“The judge spoke to a young man who was in dire need of social support. He wasn’t going to graduate, he was a senior, he was a gang member,” Cordoba said. “I don’t know what the judge told him, but whatever it was, the judge went to his graduation and he graduated this year.”
“I basically told him, ‘Do you want to change your life now or do you want to allow other people to be the ones who control who you are and what you do?’ He had a younger brother that he was supposed to set an example for – hey, they’re going to do what you do. Do you want your family to follow in your footsteps and not succeed?” Bland said. “It really turned him around and he was glad. I was pretty excited about it.”
During court sessions, Bland stresses the importance of education to each student and tells him or her statistics show that most of the jail inmates failed to finish high school.
“I’m out to give them a wake-up call,” Bland said. “One day a lady in her late ’20s who hadn’t gone to school happened to be in court waiting for me to sentence her. While I was doing the docket, she heard me talking to one of the young ladies. She just jumps up and says, ‘All you guys need to go to school or you’ll end up like me.’ I literally let her talk for 10 minutes. After she got done talking I really didn’t have to say much else.”
Because of truancy court, a number of students are turning their lives around, he said.
Serving as presiding judge has been eye opening, he said, as he’s learned the reasons for some students not attending school. Sometimes a single mother will get off work at 9 a.m. and the sibling must watch his or her younger siblings until the mother arrives home since daycare isn’t an option. One student’s family owned a family restaurant, which provided their sole income, and when the cook failed to show, the student had to fill in and miss school. There are also scenarios where a parent’s vehicle is out of service and the student is too scared to walk to school or students who come from families where English is rarely spoken. As those second language learners enter high school, it only becomes tougher to keep up in class, Bland said. Then, there’s the students who live with disabled parents or grandparents and stay home to take care of them.
“It’s little circumstances you only find out from everybody sitting here talking,” he said.
Through Municipal Court and the school districts, those issues are being resolved.
KCPS has partnered with a number of organizations like Mattie Rhodes Centers, Swope Health Services and local universities to provide social workers in schools and intervene when a crisis arises. Sometimes the need revolves around counseling, seeking a behavior specialist, case management or homelessness, Cordoba said.
“We’re moving forward in a different light,” Cordoba said. “The past three years, we didn’t understand that need and didn’t have resources available.”
KCPS also recently hired two truancy officers who will focus on elementary schools to prevent truancy from an early age.
“This has been a team effort and that’s the key,” City Council member Scott Taylor said. “As you can see from the results, this is working. Everybody should feel good about what’s been implemented.”