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School-skip bill would put onus on Hub parents

St. John Barned-Smith | 11/25/2008, 3:35 a.m.

Parents of truant students usually have to explain themselves to school officials like guidance counselors, principals or headmasters. But if a new law proposed by two Boston city councilors goes into effect, they may well find themselves explaining their child’s absences to someone else — a judge.

City Council President Maureen Feeney and City Councilor-at-Large John Connolly are pushing legislation to try to lower truancy rates in the city. The program is modeled after a highly successful program in Waterbury, Conn., that began last year in two elementary and middle schools.

The proposal “would start with a pilot program in two or three Boston public schools,” said Connolly.

“We would target schools where we know there is a serious issue with chronic truancy,” he added.

Connolly, who taught at-risk youth in both New York and Boston before entering the political arena, said he knows the damage that regular absence can cause. In a statement accompanying the bill, he wrote, “Yesterday’s chronically truant students become today’s dropouts, and too often, tomorrow’s offenders.”

“I saw it firsthand as a sixth-grade teacher in the [Boston] Renaissance Charter School,” said Connolly in a later interview.

Based on that experience, Connolly said he considers truancy a major issue that can impact public health as well as public education, and can lead to incarceration, addiction and poverty.

The first-term councilor said that the Boston Public Schools (BPS) system’s current methods haven’t adequately dealt with truancy problems, calling some about as effective as a “toothless tiger.”

“I think this program has the chance to stand in opposition to that failure,” he added.

When it comes to addressing truancy, part of the problem lies in assessing how widespread it is. BPS spokesperson Melissa Duggan wrote in an e-mail that specific statistics, such as the number of Boston public school students considered truant or the overall truancy rate in the school system, were not available.

Duggan did note, however, that in the seven-month span from November 2007 through May 2008, members of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s “Operation StopWatch” Truancy Watch effort documented 612 students at Downtown Crossing and Forest Hills who were not in school during school hours.

Interactions through efforts such as StopWatch “provide information about which students are truant, why they are truant, and will provide the foundation for a process that will help alleviate the challenges caused by truancy,” Duggan wrote.

Under the direction of Probate Judge Thomas Brunnock, Waterbury’s public schools saw a 92 percent drop in unexcused absences, from 1,072 total instances of truancy in the two schools during the first half of the school year to just 87 in the second half.

The program proposed by Feeney and Connolly differs slightly from the Waterbury version in order to serve Boston’s larger and more diverse student body.

Waterbury’s total population as of last year was 107,174, according to census data, about one-sixth the size of Boston, home to 599,351 residents. Additionally, Waterbury’s public school system serves just over 18,200 students, while nearly 56,000 students attend public schools here.