High School Programs Work on Curing the Itch to Ditch : Education: Huntington Park High initiates a tracking system that has resulted in a 5.5% increase in attendance. Other schools are trying a variety of computerized systems.

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It's time for biology class. Do you know where your teen-ager is?

Huntington Park High School parents know where their children are, thanks to a new program in which every absence from every class is reported with a phone call home.

Many students said that since the program started in July, they don't casually cut class anymore, and teachers joke that classrooms are now too full.

Although Huntington Park High has not ascended to the head of the class in the attendance category, it has made strides toward keeping students in school. The most recent available figures show a 5.5% increase in the school's attendance rate. In July and August, the school cut down absences by 120 a day even though enrollment increased by 92 students.

"Things were really getting out of hand" before the program began, said assistant principal Marvin Gunderson. "The kids were beating the system."

"All you had to do is go to homeroom and ditch the rest of the day," said one 16-year-old junior. "Now, people come to school. They say, 'I got to go to class or they'll call home.' "

Social studies teacher Harry Sauberman, who proposed the program, said absences in some of his classes have been cut in half. Sauberman, the teachers' union representative at Huntington Park, said he polled colleagues before recommending the program to the administration. Faculty members voted 77 to 8 in favor, he said.

"The only concern of the teachers is that it will die out," he said.

The program is so labor-intensive that it may be difficult to maintain, said John Gates, the school's attendance counselor. The school tallies absences from 90 attendance rosters each period. By the end of the next day, every truant's home has been called and parents know that their child was out of class without a valid excuse. Calls are made by parent volunteers and teachers' assistants, who have been pulled from classrooms.

When the program is working, a parent may be called minutes after the child is discovered absent, Gates said. "We try to let people know: 'Your child is not in class right now. Do you know where they are?' " Gates said.

Two years ago, Huntington Park High had six employees who handled attendance problems. Because of budget cuts, the 3,980-student school now has only Gates--and the phone program.

Schools throughout the Southeast area are trying a variety of strategies to keep more students in class. Bell High School is among several Los Angeles Unified schools participating in a computerized pilot program that also tracks student absences by period.

South Gate High, which boasts the highest attendance rate in Los Angeles Unified, uses a carrot-and-stick approach. Seniors and their parents, for example, sign attendance contracts in which students agree to forgo privileges such as the prom and the annual senior trip if they are absent more than eight days. The school also rewards good attendance with certificates and pizza parties.

The attendance rate at South Gate last year was 95%. Huntington Park High's attendance rate has improved to 90%.

Long Beach Unified has a computer that dials families at home any time a student misses at least three class periods a day. The district's high school attendance rate is 92.5%.

Downey Unified has a similar electronic calling system. The district computer also will send a letter to parents when a student misses five days a quarter.

The battle against truancy eventually reaches a hard line. Downey Unified, for example, successfully pursued criminal charges against the parent of a truant child and will use that option again as necessary, said Stan Hanstad, director of pupil services. The parent was accused of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Most cases of truancy can and should be prevented much earlier, Hanstad added. The key is communicating with parents and working on the problem immediately.

Times Staff Writer Howard Blume contributed to this story.

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