District public school officials using new computer technology have returned to the old-fashioned way of getting students to attend school daily and on time. The schools are calling the parents.
School officials have purchased 50 machines that automatically call parents when their children are absent or tardy. If the line is busy or there is no answer, the machines call back.
A special truancy center has been created in Northeast at Stuart Junior High School to try to resolve social problems that sometimes contribute to children missing school.
The automatic calling machines and the center are part of a $1 million pilot program initiated by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to attempt to reduce the high rate of absenteeism and tardiness by the city's junior and senior high school students.
"The machines help us to contact parents sooner," said James Williams, principal at Cardozo, at 13th and Clifton streets NW, which started using a calling machine on a trial basis a year ago. The machines were put in the other schools earlier this year.
"If a kid is absent today, the parent is notified today," Williams said. "This helps us get a handle on the attendance problem.
"We've had instances in which a student had been chronically truant for weeks and after one phone call to his home, he straightened up. It was like magic," Williams said.
The machines can call up to 55 homes an hour, said Marilyn Brown, assistant superintendent for student services. They have been installed in all the city's junior and senior high schools and the vocational career centers.
When students are late, the machines call their parents at home or at work and play recorded messages from the principal, asking parents to call the school immediately.
Informing parents that their children have been marked late or absent usually works, Brown said, because it exposes youths who cut school or skip classes thinking that their parents will not find out. Typically, when parents are informed, they discipline their children and that usually stops the tardiness or absenteeism, she said.
Queen Austin, whose 17-year-old daughter attends Cardozo High School, agreed and said the calling machines are a good idea.
"My children don't have a reason to be absent," she said. "If they were out of school without my permission they would be in trouble . . . and they probably wouldn't do that again."
The new system has one problem officials are trying to remedy. Only a few of the high schools and career centers have connected the special telephones needed to receive calls from parents responding to the tape-recorded announcements. Now these calls are taken on telephones in the main offices of the schools, which are often busy.
For the more stubborn cases of truancy, public school officials have hired 17 attendance counselors, one for each of the city's high schools, and opened a special truancy center with a staff that includes five social workers. Tardiness and absenteeism often indicate problems at home or a personal crisis, school administrators said.
A truancy center has been opened at Stuart Junior High School at Fourth and E streets NE, where counselors and social workers work with chronically truant students and youths who are picked up by police in the Capitol Hill area.
In other parts of the city, students picked up by police or truant officers are still returned directly to school. However, if the truancy center proves a success officials hope to use it to help students from all parts of the city, they said.
"Students who are continually late or absent from school usually have problems at home or problems with their peers or psychological problems," Brown said. "They need help dealing with their fears or whatever is bugging them.
"Sometimes, they have younger siblings to take care of at home. They have to get them dressed and fed, then dress and feed themselves. Under our new program, we can deal with each case individually and find out what the obstacles are and remove them," she said.
Ellen Datcher, executive assistant to Brown, added, "If a child is ashamed to go to school because he doesn't have the proper clothing to wear, we can buy some items. We've come across cases where we've found parents who simply don't get their children up in the mornings and to school. We have to remind these adults that minors must be in school. That's the law."
Many of the attendance counselors, who were hired and assigned to the 17 high schools and career centers in February, have established "personal" relationships with students who were chronically late or absent, Brown said.
Doretha Carroll, an attendance counselor at Cardozo who often visits student homes and holds seminars with parents at the school in the evenings, said, "The personal touch brings success. I've helped students realize that their problems are not that big in most instances.
"For instance, if I find that a group of students who are friends have been cutting classes to be together, I try to change their schedules so they can be in the same classes. That's worked in a few instances. Instead of them hanging out in the street, they are in class, learning."
When Carroll met Tracey Adams, 16, a 10th grader at Cardozo, the student had been coming to school late regularly. "I didn't feel like coming to school," Adams said in an interview recently.
"I guess I was sort of depressed, but Miss Carroll talked to me like a good friend or a big sister. She made me think she really cared. Sometimes I come to school just because it makes her happy."