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Saturday School Gives Class-Cutters a Lesson

Times Staff Writer

Eric Mitchell didn’t sell any chocolate bars or booster pennants, but he recently made some money for his high school--by going to class on Saturday.

School on Saturday, an Arcadia High School program that requires truants to make up hours for missed classes, is designed to help the high school recoup state money lost when a student skips school.

Mitchell, 18, was in Saturday school because he had ditched classes one day to visit his girlfriend in Riverside. He worked on an English assignment, plowing through 200 pages of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”

Based on Attendance

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“I wish I had it during finals,” Mitchell said of the mandatory four-hour study period.

For every Saturday class a student attends, the school receives $15.88 from the state, said Tom Payne, assistant principal in charge of student activities and attendance.

The amount of state money a school district receives is based on the schools’ average daily attendance, or ADA.

In the 1988-89 school year, $22 million of the Arcadia Unified School District’s $28-million budget will come from ADA, said C. Earl Davis, assistant superintendent in charge of business services.

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During the first two months of the 1987-88 school year alone, truancy cost the high school $50,000 in state money, said Davis. During the same two-month period this school year, the loss was $30,000.

Last year’s figure includes money lost due to unexcused absences in the days after the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake, Davis said.

School on Saturday programs have been adopted elsewhere, including Alta Loma High School, the El Rancho Unified School District and the Whittier Union High School District.

Tougher Policy

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Arcadia instituted the program this school year as part of an effort to toughen its truancy policy and recoup state subsidies for attendance.

“Absenteeism was increasing; truancy was increasing,” Payne said. “We could see a trend.”

The program, started in October, is reserved for students who have missed at least a full day of school.

In theory, they must attend one Saturday school class for every day of school they missed, but Payne said no student has been asked to attend more than four consecutive Saturday sessions. Some truants have ditched a week or more of school, he said, and there are not enough Saturday sessions in the school year for all of them to catch up.

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Saturday school classes are not held on holiday weekends or on days when college entrance examinations are scheduled.

The program, Payne added, isn’t intended to “do the student in.”

‘Apache Lotto’

In addition to Saturday school, Arcadia High has started an “Apache Lotto” game in which students selected at random each week can win $5 or more if they did not miss class the two previous days.

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If the winners did miss class, the money is rolled over to the following week’s drawing, said Payne. So far, the largest jackpot was $15.

Money for the game comes from the student government.

In the past, truants were sent to Saturday Work Detail, where they joined students sent there for breaking school rules such as smoking or fighting. Students on work detail must do chores such as picking up trash on campus.

The number of students required to report for work detail hit a high of 120 on some Saturdays, said Payne. The school, which has 2,000 students, did not recover any state money by sending truants to work detail.

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One recent Saturday, seven students dragged themselves out of bed early to attend the 8 a.m.-to-noon School on Saturday classes. Those who ditch Saturday school face suspension, said Payne.

“Somewhere down the road, they can be transferred to an alternative school,” said Payne. “It’s not in their best interest to be suspended.”

The night before, a school employee telephoned each student’s home to leave a message about the consequences of failing to attend.

For Mike Messina, 15, getting that call ended his technique of hanging up on the computerized telephone calls the school makes to possible truants. The calls, featuring Payne’s voice, are made between 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. after a student has missed three or more classes.

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The computer makes 275 to 300 calls a day, Payne said. If anyone answers the phone, the computer registers “message received.”

“I intercepted all the calls from the school,” said Messina, a sophomore who recently ditched a week and a half of school. “I had it planned so perfect.”

But the system caught up with him when the school employee made a live call.

At Saturday school a few weeks ago, Messina and six fellow truants, including Mitchell, sat quietly reading or doing homework. An adult proctor made sure they stayed. If students run out of homework, proctors give them work sheets covering subjects such as math or history.

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“We haven’t had to use (the work sheets) yet,” said Michael Simuniello, a fourth-grade teacher who works as a proctor.

At the first Saturday school class Simuniello supervised, he found one of his former fourth-grade students on the roll.

“He just walked in and smiled at me and went about his work,” Simuniello said of the 17-year-old. “He was probably my hardest worker that day.”

Automatic Flunking

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Under the new, tougher truancy policy, students who skip school four times in a quarter automatically fail the course. In semester courses, six unexcused absences mean mandatory failure.

Mitchell said he feels the pinch.

“Last year, you could get away with two or three (absences) and not get caught,” he said.

In regular class, teachers are emphasizing attendance by giving more pop quizzes or in-class assignments that truants are not allowed to make up, thus hurting their grades.

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“I think it’s working marvelously,” Payne said of the new truancy policy and incentive programs. He said attendance on selected days this year has been 12%-13% higher than it was last year.

Most students in Saturday school didn’t mind being required to study.

“It’s only four hours,” said Nick Cazier, a 17-year-old senior. “The problem is getting up at 7:30. That’s a deterrent.”

Payne said Saturday school is scheduled early for just that reason.

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Cuts Into Job

For Karen Becker, 16, the biggest deterrent is that Saturday school cuts into her part-time job at an interior decorating store. She said she had to ask her boss for time off in order to attend.

Becker said she started ditching classes last year because she felt intimidated by high school. Recently, she said, she missed two days of school because she was sick.

“My mother didn’t want to give me a note because she didn’t believe me,” said Becker. But she is less tempted to skip school now, she said, especially because her mother has promised her a car if she stops ditching classes.

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Saturday school was productive for Messina. “I just used the time to read my “Huckleberry Finn” book,” he said. Reading the novel for English class, sitting with his cap cocked backward, he seemed to share the carefree spirit of the Mark Twain character.

Rather Be at Beach

Cazier polished off an assignment that wouldn’t be due for four days and began tackling “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. Despite all the work he got done, though, he said he would rather not have to go to Saturday school.

“I would have wanted to go to the beach today,” said Cazier, who had skipped classes to go surfing. “Now that I look back on it, it’s not worth it. Instead of going that day, I could have gone today.”

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Steve Kim, a 17-year-old junior, reported for Saturday school with his buddies in tow. Michael Lee, 17, wasn’t required to attend, but he showed up with homework of his own to keep Kim company.

Another friend, San Han, 17, arrived later and stood outside the classroom waiting for Kim and Lee. During breaks, the three chatted in a huddle.

Kenny Chyan, 18, also sat outside, waiting patiently for his girlfriend to finish Saturday school. “It’s my fault,” Chyan said, glancing toward the classroom. He said he had caused her to miss school.

Chyan said he tried to make up by giving her flowers but wasn’t sure if that helped.

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As for Eric Mitchell, school on Saturday has dampened his desire to play hooky, but not completely.

“You just got to be more careful,” he said.


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