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L.A. Unified is keeping tabs on its truants

Times Staff Writer

Although the Los Angeles Unified School District has ramped up its efforts to keep students in school, a new report shows that thousands are still skipping class routinely, and the problem is rampant in a few low-performing schools.

The report is the first in what is intended as a series of monthly accounts that will track truancy and absenteeism in every middle and high school in the district -- something that has not been done in such a systematic way before.

The information is considered critical because students typically begin skipping school sporadically before dropping out altogether. L.A. Unified is trying to tackle a dropout rate that is officially 24.1% but has been estimated at close to double that.

Several numbers leap out of the first report, which tracked students who missed school in January.

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A single school, Washington Preparatory High School near Inglewood, had 170 students with 10 or more “unresolved” absences that month. Another, Belmont High, just west of downtown, had 167. An unresolved absence is one for which a student does not bring a written excuse and the school doesn’t contact the parents.

And a middle school, Bethune in South L.A., listed 335 students with three or more truancies, far more than any other school. A truancy is an unauthorized absence, one for which the school has determined that the student had no legitimate excuse.

An assistant principal at Belmont, John Newton, said the school, where 4,045 students are enrolled, welcomed the report. “It should allow us to improve student attendance and track down those students who may drop out because of attendance problems,” he said. “So we think it will be a real benefit, even though it looks negative the first month.”

One reason the number of absences may be so high, Newton said, is that the district has rolled out a new computerized attendance system that keeps track of students’ presence in every class. Before, attendance was taken once a day, in homeroom.

“So we literally have, in a school this size, thousands of attendance marks every day,” he said. That means, among other things, that whenever a student cuts a single class, it is classified as an absence. Without an excuse, it becomes “unresolved.”

Bethune’s assistant principal, Beverly Byrd, said the high numbers at her school, which enrolls 2,300 students, were partly the result of an especially tough approach to absences fostered by the school’s participation in an anti-truancy program run by the city attorney’s office. Under that program, Operation Bright Futures, absent students were declared truant unless they returned to school with a note from a doctor, she said.

Once the district report came out, Byrd said, Bethune administrators decided to mark absences “uncleared” until they could reach the parents and find out whether the student had a legitimate reason to miss school. She said the school has a fairly high attendance rate -- between 93% and 94%. But she also said students sometimes skip classes, a practice that contributes to high truancy numbers.

Even before its release, the attendance report caused a stir when Deputy Mayor Ramon C. Cortines accused the district of dragging its feet in releasing the data. He complained on Feb. 21 that the report was ready but had not been made public “because of the damn bureaucracy.”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa repeatedly attacked the district because of its dropout rate last year as he was attempting to gain control over the school system.

The report was made public within two days of Cortines’ complaint. A deputy to Cortines, Marshall Tuck, said recently that its release represented “good progress,” although he added that it was too early to draw any meaningful conclusions because there are no earlier, comparable data to show whether the district is improving or not.

“You need, first and foremost, to have the data,” he said.

Debra Duardo, the director of dropout prevention and recovery for the district, agreed that it was difficult to tell much from a single month of reporting. However, she said it did point her toward some schools -- she declined to name them -- that might be doing a sloppy job of record keeping or failing to aggressively respond to unexplained absences. She called the reports “a great tool” that will help the district rein in the problem.

Over the last year, the district has taken several measures to keep closer track of its attendance and dropout problems. It has added attendance clerks and counselors to nearly every high school, and the new computer system that tracks students period by period eventually will be available to parents to keep an eye on their children’s attendance. That system has also allowed the district to begin producing the monthly reports.

The January report shows that out of nearly 386,000 middle and high school students, 3,533 had 10 or more unresolved absences that month.

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com


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