Truancy-Tardiness Policy Gets Results at La Mirada

Times Staff Writer

Thirteen years ago, Marge Beckman's son graduated from La Mirada High School with honors--and 30 absences on his report card that Beckman said she "knew nothing about."

"I about flipped," said Beckman, now a member of the Board of Education in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District.

It was a scene that was not to be repeated Wednesday when her daughter graduated from the school, Beckman said.

Three years ago, La Mirada High devised a tough attendance policy that has since cut absences by almost 25% and more than halved tardiness and part-day truancies. Daytime residential burglaries also have dropped in the area as fewer students skip school, and parents are informed when their child's attendance is poor.

The program at La Mirada High "certainly has gotten the best results" of the attendance policies used by the district's three high schools (grades 8 through 12), Supt. Bruce Newlin said. "We may have other schools pick it up."

The policy--which actively involves teachers, administrators, security guards and an off-campus patrol by sheriff's deputies--works on the principle of swift punishment for offenders.

If a student is late for class at La Mirada High, he must report for one hour of after-school detention. If the student skips detention, he is placed the next school day in an "adjustment room" for students with discipline problems--a kind of suspension on campus.

Repeat offenders and students who are found to be truant must report for four hours of detention on Saturday mornings.

Parents receive a postcard notification after their child misses a class five times. After 10 absences, a letter is sent home and the student must report to a counselor. After 15 absences, the student is placed on academic probation, his parents are called in for a meeting, and the student must agree to make up work missed in order to remain in the class.

If the student already has missed too much to pass, he is sent to the adjustment room during that period for the rest of the semester.

Now They Run to Class

"This used to be a school where kids would come when they felt like it," said Ed Shaw, dean of students. "There was a lot of cutting, going to the beach."

Now, he said, "This is the only campus I've been on where kids run to class."

La Mirada High reported 20,590 instances of students late for class in the 1982-83 school year, the first year of the program. The tardies had dropped to 8,614 by the end of this school year. Total absences from classes, calculated by period, dropped from 279,821 in the 1982-83 school year, to 214,080 this year. Part-day truancies dropped from 2,817 in 1982-83 to 1,302 this year, the school reported.

With 300 students more than each of the other high schools in the district, La Mirada High reports far fewer unauthorized absences. For the academic year through mid-May, the school reported 6,492 such absences, compared to 9,929 at John Glenn High School and 10,823 at Norwalk High School.

School districts lose state funds when students are absent for reasons other than illness or doctor appointments.

The strict policy at La Mirada High has educated parents as well as students, Principal Les Billinger said. Three years ago, he said, "parents felt like they could take their kids out of school anytime they wanted to." Now, he said, parents call to thank the school for informing them of their child's absence.

No Parent Complaints

In fact, board member Beckman said, the policy "has given parents a way to stand up and be stronger. It's pretty hard to try to clamp down on your kid when they say, 'It doesn't make any difference.' " No parents have ever complained to the board about the strict attendance rules, she said.

In the beginning, students bristled at the new system.

"The kids used to throw a fit and say it was a prison," security assistant Shirley McConnell said. "You don't hear that any more. They seem to accept it."

A lot of students still do not like the tough rules, said Brigitte Golay, junior class president at La Mirada High. "But the only students who really care are the ones who are tardy," she said. "I think (the policy) does work."

Teachers have given the policy high marks, reporting far fewer cuts and much better punctuality from students in recent years.

"It really makes (students) hustle," said math teacher Ed Wilkins, who has taught 25 years in the district. "It's just human nature. A person is going to try and conform if there's a penalty."

Patrol on a Moped

At lunchtime on a recent weekday, security guards inspected passes at the gates for students going home to lunch. Shaw patrolled the campus on a moped, looking for students who may be cutting class or committing other disciplinary infractions. Shaw, who administers the attendance policy at the school, occasionally checks for truants at the 12:30 p.m. showing of popular movies at a nearby theater.

Every day, a deputy from the Norwalk sheriff's station patrols the campus and nearby park, shopping mall, fast food restaurants and video parlors, looking for students who should be in school.

The attendance policy at La Mirada High may have helped cut down on burglaries, said sheriff's deputy Bruce Holtzendorff, who picks up between six and 12 truants a week on the patrol. Burglaries in La Mirada dropped about 27% from 687 in 1981, before the policy was implemented, to about 500 last year, according to statistics from the Norwalk station.

But board member Beckman is not yet satisfied. There are still between 30,000 and 40,000 full-day absences a year, averaging about 180 students absent per day, at all three high schools, district statistics show. Three years ago, Beckman said, the board required every school to develop an attendance plan of its own to tackle the problem.

Focus Is on Newcomers

At John Glenn High School, principal Elias Galvan said the administration concentrates its attendance policy on incoming eighth graders, setting up summer conferences with students who have poor attendance records.

"We just don't have the manpower for the other levels," Galvan said.

At Norwalk High School, dean of students Edward Manzo said, "We don't have a real stringent attendance policy. We're in the process of developing a program."

While neither Norwalk nor Glenn has chosen to implement the strict attendance rules that La Mirada has adopted, principals at both schools said phone calls are made to parents whose children are absent, letters are sent home and individual teachers are expected to penalize students who arrive late to class.

Still, Beckman said, the results are disappointing. Each of the three high schools now keeps better track of attendance with computers and clerks, she said, "but what are we going to do about it? I think our absentee rate is still too high. You can't teach children if they're not in the classroom."

Improving attendance takes time and "is just like pulling teeth," Beckman conceded, but La Mirada's policy is a step in the right direction. There, she said, "we're all getting back to running the show, instead of having the kids run it."

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