Craig Bianco began the ninth grade by skipping classes he didn't like. By the end of the year he was cutting them all. Achieving "master class cutter" status at Arlington's Wakefield High School, said 15-year-old Bianco, required very little scholarship.
"It was just so easy, you could get up and walk right out of the building," said Bianco, who never had to look farther than the nearest fast-food hangout last year to find plenty of friends who had taken the same unauthorized walk.
But this year, when Bianco began the 10th grade with the same attendance habits, he discovered the rules had changed. It was still just as easy to get out of school, but after missing two consecutive weeks of homeroom classes, he found out he couldn't get back in -- at least not for credit.
Bianco is one of several hundred high school students who have been caught this year in Arlington's well-publicized truancy trap. As a result of a new, strict attendance policy begun last September, students are automatically losing course credits after a specified number of unexcused absences -- five from a one-semester course and 10 from a year-long course.
Most of the students are losing credits for no more than a single course, but about 40 chronic truants are expected to lose credit for the entire year. For those students, like Bianco, the school system now has an alternative.
Officially titled Compulsory Attendance Assistance Program (CAAP), the 3-week-old program at Arlington's career Center is designed as a last chance for the student who either "is not able to stand regular school or the regular school is not able to stand," according to assistant superindent Harold Wilson, one of the architects of the program. "Our remedy (for the truant) will be to cajole him, threaten him, negotiate with him, even throw him out for a day. Basically we will hold onto him as long as we think we can do something for him," said Wilson at a school board meeting in January, when $20,000 was appropriated for CAAP. "This doesn't mean the students will attend this program either. Habits are already formed. But it means there is a place for them."
Finding a place for 14- to 16-year-old truants, whom federal law requires to attend school, is a problem common to s chool systems throughout Northern Virginia and the nation, particularly with the new, strict attendance policies that are part of the back-to-basics movement in public schools.
The purpose of those attendance requirements, which have been adopted in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax, is to decrease class-cutting and thereby improve grades. Reports from all three school jurisdictions confirm that many students have met both those goals. In Arlington, for instance, statistics show truancy has declined at the senior high school level this year, by approximately 30 percent.
But at the same time, the new policies have created a class of students who have, by their own actions, lost the motivation for attending classes.
"There's no hope for a young person staying in school if he knows there's no chance for getting credit," said Wilson.
Alexandria and Fairfax school officials report their chronic truants have been placed in other alternative programs, such as adult-education classes and vocational training.
Arlington has similar programs, at its Clay and Langston schools, for approximately 250 students. But those programs are designed for students 16 and older. Administrators decided the 14- and 15-year-olds needed a more elementary curriculum.
"What they really need is small class size and a lot of individual attention," said Tom Smolinski, director of the 10-year-old Career Center where the CAAP program is based.
Students in the program remain on the rolls of their home schools while attending CAAP classes in math, English and social studies. As part of the program they also work one, two or three days a week at a variety of jobs, from cooking in fast-food establishments to cleaning up in nursing homes. None of the students is paid, and most of the jobs are tedious.
The philosophy behind requiring the students to find work, said Smolinsky, is to prepare them for the realities of life outside school.
"They find out what they don't know," said Smolinsky. "It's more real when a job supervisor tells them what they need to learn rather than a teacher."
"Most of the jobs they've found are boring and repetitious," said Elizabeth Blue, one of three teachers in the CAAP program. "But they still think there's a silver lining out there somewhere."
Blue came to the program after eight years at Arlington's Family Center, where she taught and counseled pregnant teen-agers. With that background, says Blue, she doubts her new responsibilities will overwhelm her.
"I've got thick skin. I've lived for a long time," said Blue last week, as 10 students worked around a square of tables. During the first three weeks of the program, said Blue, her students have been guilty of nothing worse than candor.
"Our students don't feel the need to pretend they are interested in learning. If they are bored or they hate it, they don't mind admitting it."
During interviews last week, students gave passing marks to the CAAP program.
Marie Waters, 15, a sophomore who cut too many classes at Wakefield, said, "I like it here; you're more on your own."
Jimmy Brittain, also 15, said the program was a major improvement over his classes at Yorktown High School, except that he had to stay in one classroom all day.
And Shelia Quirk, a 15-year-old classmate of Brittain's said, "I'm studying, and that's more than I did at Yorktown."
Quirk is working at a local steak house. It is her first job, and not one she would recommend to friends. She says would like to be a veterinarian, "if I had the schooling." But Quirk admits it is unlikely she will maintain an intimate relationship with school for that long.
"You'd think they'd have something out there for people without much education," said Quirk.