Faced with a chronic truancy problem in junior and senior high schools, the D.C. public schools have launched a program that enlists parents to combat student absenteeism.

Under the program, called Parent-to-Parent, volunteer parents call the homes of students who are absent from school and notify their parents. So far, the school system's volunteer office has enlisted 56 parents to do the calling for about four hours each day in 48 junior and senior high schools throughout the city. The office hopes to have at least 200 parents involved in the program by September.

The Parent-to-Parent program kicked off last week with assemblies in each school that emphasized the importance of good attendance. The students received buttons reading "I attended school today" and pep talks from various community figures, like Calvin W. Rolark, chairman of the United Black Fund, Terry Metcalf of the Washington Redskins, Edward Tapscott, the new head coach of American University's basketball team, and D.C. School Board Vice President Nathaniel Bush (Ward 7).

On any given weekday, 10 to 15 percent of the city's 21,573 junior high school students and 15 to 20 percent of the 18,479 senior high students are absent from school, said C. Vanessa Spinner, the school system's volunteer coordinator. She said the national absentee average is about 10 percent for those grades.

"It's a simple idea we're working on: if parents know their children are out of school, they will do something about it," Spinner said.

The school system decided to seek volunteer help, Spinner said, after the number of school truant officers was cut from 31 to 18 this year because of budget restraints. The truant officers also call parents at home and make home visits when students are chronically absent.

The school attendance office and the D.C. Congress of Parent Teacher Associations started another program earlier this year, called Project Attend, which focused on improving school attendance while also helping schools deal with discipline problems as a way of improving student performance. That program was in effect in only 14 pilot schools in Northeast and Southeast.

During Project Attend, students with truancy and discipline problems and their parents attended special workshops aimed at improving the students' attitude toward school.