Take a walk around downtown at lunchtime and you’ll see many of Berkeley High School’s 3,400 or so students.
But when it’s time to be back in class, not all of them will be at their desks.
It’s only seven weeks since school began and already 250 students have been singled out at the high school for poor attendance. Some have already racked up 30 or 40 absences.
Without divulging more comprehensive figures, school officials acknowledge that truancy has been a problem for years. They have begun implementing a new policy to address it. Components include “downtown sweeps” and a formal “Check and Connect” program to recruit parents and other students to keep truants in school.
But the new policy is up against a student culture in which almost everyone cuts class to some degree, and where skipping, students say, is incredibly easy to do.
“A lot of times people cut because they’re not doing anything in class that day, or they have a substitute and there’s absolutely no reason to go,” said senior Sam Black, who has skipped occasionally. Others skip more frequently “because they’re not doing well in the class and their way of dealing with that is, ‘if I don’t go I don’t have to deal with the class.’”
“It’s like a snowball,” Black said. “Once they start skipping then there’s no reason for them to go to class anymore.”
“It’s so easy,” said senior Anna Sorenson, who, when she occasionally wanders the halls, is rarely asked why. “You can just say you’re late for class.”
“It’s even easier to walk right off campus because there’s this big hole,” said senior Sarah Goodin, referring to a passage way beside the Berkeley Community Theater on Allston Way. Just a short walk east are tempting fast-food restaurants, movie theaters and CD and clothing stores.
The school plans to work with Berkeley Police, UC Berkeley police and downtown’s Berkeley Guides to do “post-lunchtime sweeps” of the downtown area. They can check IDs of anyone under 18 and return them to school, though without using the “paddy wagon” tactics that landed an official apology from Berkeley Police in January 2000.
“We’re trying to train kids that they’ve got that time (away) and then to come back,” said Vice Principal Lawrence Lee.
But the sweeps policy does not appear to be in effect. “There are no sweeps,” wrote Board of Education Vice President Shirley Issel in an e-mail Friday, “and I see few kids wearing (mandatory) ID tags = no enforcement. The truancy policy is in process and the lack of enforcement is very disappointing to me.”
Issel said she’s not holding out much hope for Check and Connect, either. That program, however, appears to be having at least some small success.
Earl Bill is the new program’s coordinator. He ran the school’s on-campus suspension program for the past 10 years, and now holds court in room H-105 of the cavernous H building, where his desk has neither a computer nor a phone.
Check and Connect was conceived around the idea that its coordinator would have access to a computer database of student attendance records. With the click of a mouse he would be able to print out a daily record of who’s cutting class. The records are on a nearby computer, but there isn’t a printer connected to it.
“I have around 250 names,” Bill said, “but without access to a printer I can’t (print out) the student’s schedule.”
So, he does it the old-fashioned way. He’s gone to teachers and guidance counselors to ask them to report to him on a daily basis, who is not coming to class, and he also hears from security staff.
On a first violation – for missing at least three classes – a student is sent to Bill and told that by law he has to be in school – that his attendance is being watched and that his parent can be fined or jailed if he continues to skip class. A letter also goes home to his parent or guardian. Bill’s new job started Sept. 5; 150 letters went out two weeks later.
By the time a second violation occurs – for three more absences – the student must carry a card that has to be initialed by every teacher of every class on his schedule that week. Bill has the teachers’ own initials on file to detect forgeries. A second, different letter goes home.
On the third strike, the parent is brought before Bill, the parent resource coordinator and the vice principal. By this time the student has bucked both the attendance checks and his contract to go to class. The parent learns that, unless there are outside problems warranting intervention by a health professional, the school district’s child welfare services will intervene and can notify the district attorney for prosecution.
“After that many chances the kid can’t say that, ‘Nobody gave me a chance, nobody told me about this,’” Bill said.
Check and Connect appears to be working. Hard numbers are making an impression with students. “They say, ‘I haven’t missed that many classes,’” Bill said. “I say, ‘Are you counting?’” End-of-the-week attendance is up, and Bill sees students in classrooms more and in hallways less.
Word is getting around, both at home and at school. “You don’t have to do a lot of work,” Bill said. “You just send out about 10 letters and parents start talking.” Their children, he suspects, mention the letters nervously to their friends, too.
Still, it’s an uphill battle. Students flat-out tell Bill they’re used to walking off campus whenever they want to. “I have 12th graders now who are very critical because they’re cutting every day,” Bill said. “And they think they’re going to graduate.”
A printer and a phone, Bill said, would help.
“If they know that things are not working, it doesn’t take them long to say, ‘Hey, something has broken,’” Bill said. “If they think it’s broken, they’re going to continue to do it.”