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Truant Officer Relies on Visits, Sweet Reason : Education: Official intends to see that Capistrano Unified district’s low dropout rate does not increase.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The stereotypical image of the school truant officer is like something out of an old movie--a big ferocious “hooky cop” grabbing an absent-without-leave waif by the scruff of the neck and dragging the student into the principal’s office.

But like all stereotypes, that image is inaccurate, particularly for the Capistrano Unified School District’s only truant officer.

Looking gentle in his comfortable blue tweeds, Alan Hix looks more as if he just walked out of a scene in “Father Knows Best” than “The Blackboard Jungle.” Armed only with a cellular phone and an easygoing attitude, Hix spends hours knocking on doors and persuading--not forcing--children to go to school.

“The days of truant officers whisking kids away to school are long over,” says Principal Richard Campbell of Viejo Elementary School in Mission Viejo. “A truant officer can’t afford to throw a net around kids anymore. They do it best by being gentle.”

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With school districts hurting for money and instituting budget cuts, Capistrano Unified is one of the few districts left with its own truant officer. Since taking the job in February, Hix has been able to persuade more than 20 students a month to return.

“I can get nasty if I want to,” Hix said. “But my nice approach works better all the time.”

His target is any child who has been habitually absent from school without a valid reason such as an excused illness. Hix is determined to make sure that the district’s already low 2% dropout rate--minuscule compared to the countywide average of 15.8%--does not increase. That often means directing special attention to truant children before they reach junior high school, when they are more tempted to skip classes, he says.

“I’m not like a policeman or anything. That’s not my job,” Hix said. “I have pretty good contact with all sections of the community. I have to know the law. Those laws with teeth have been downplayed, and there’s other societal problems nowadays. Once I find these kids, my goal is to help them, not hurt them.”

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California law requires students to attend school until they reach 18 or until they graduate with a diploma or an equivalent degree. Once teen-agers reach 16, they can substantially cut down their class time, but they must still attend school.

When school districts like Capistrano were considerably smaller, truant officers used to be able to enforce that law simply by keeping an eye out for anyone under 18 who was on the streets when they should have been in school. But with Capistrano Unified covering 190 square miles and with a student population of about 27,000, Hix relies on home visits to follow up calls from social workers, parents and school officials reporting that “Johnny didn’t make it to school again.”

A home visit is one of the most effective ways to get children back to school, Principal Campbell said. If a student is truant at Viejo, Campbell accompanies Hix on the home visits.

The motivation for the district to return truant students to the classroom is twofold--each time a child plays hooky, Capistrano Unified loses money because state funding is based on daily attendance, and, of course, to help the students get an education.

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Take 17-year-old Scott, who’s been out of school for two years. He dropped out to care for his sick mother while he was a freshman at a Riverside County high school. A social worker caught up with Scott and found that Scott wanted a high school diploma but that he didn’t know which school to attend. The social worker called Hix for help.

On a recent visit to Scott’s home, Hix spent half the visit getting to know him. Between reassurances and good-natured kidding, Hix recommended two alternative schools, both of which are near the teen-ager’s neighborhood. Hix said he could enroll Scott in either one.

“It would be nice to have an education,” said Scott, who is thinking about a music career. “School is something I had once, and something I’ve forgotten. If I ever get popular in music or anything, it would be really nice to sign my name proper.”

After the visit, Hix made notes in his files to call the schools and check up on Scott.

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“All he needs is a hand right now. He wants to go back,” Hix said.

Red Balfour, principal of the county Department of Education’s Community Home Education Program, which provides alternative schooling for children in need, said truant officers are trained to encourage parents to send their children to school and offer assistance when the families need it.

“When Alan finds these kids, he must earn their trust,” Balfour said. “He can’t frighten them, or else they’ll never go back to school.”

Children stay out of school for a variety of reasons, educators say. Some are embarrassed by their inability to afford good clothes. Other families need their oldest children to baby-sit their younger siblings.

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Then there are the children who simply don’t want to stay in the classroom out of boredom or rebelliousness or other teen-age problems. In those cases, Hix visits their homes and tries to find alternative schooling for them.

More often than not, Hix says, the job is rewarding.

Recalling his favorite success story, Hix spoke of 16-year-old Norma, who had been out of school for seven years when he met her. A social worker also told Hix about Norma.

Hix discovered that Norma had been earning money for her impoverished family by baby-sitting. The idea of attending school again thrilled her.

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But with Norma, Hix had a dilemma. If he recommended that she attend a Capistrano Unified school, she would have had a difficult time adjusting. As a 16-year-old with a fourth-grade education, Norma would not neatly fit in to any of the district’s schools or programs.

Hix helped enroll Norma in the county’s community home education program, where she receives personal tutoring. Now, Norma dreams of getting a high school diploma.

“There are some kids I know will never go back to school no matter how hard I try,” Hix said. “But then there are those who need that extra push. With a little help, they end up making it. Those are the kids who make this job worthwhile.”


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