Berkeley High School. Photo: Charlotte Wayne

In the last two weeks, Berkeley High officials have sent out close to 2,000 letters telling students they have been truant, but they are regarding the number as an achievement.

While it might seem worrisome that 60% of the school’s 3,300 students are routinely skipping class, the situation is actually better than last year thanks to new programs on preventing truancy, according to Daniel Roose, the dean of attendance.

While in 2010, only about 90.7% of the students attended regularly, the number is up this year, said Roose. Attendance in September, October, and November of 2011 was more than 94%, he said.

“It’s still way too high,” said Roose. “The state of California would like all California schools to be in the high 90s. We are below average for our peer schools in California.”

A comparison of BHS attendance figures from 2010-11 to this year

In previous years, Berkeley officials have estimated that the district loses about $100,000 a month when kids do not go to high school, and has lost as much as $2.4 million a year. Roose did not have figures available yet for this year.

The vast majority of the letters sent out – 1,776 — went to parents to tell them their child has three “unexcused absences.”  Another batch went to 131 families telling them their children had four or more unexcused absences. A third batch went to 67 families telling them their kids had five or more unexcused absences.

The unexcused absences do not necessarily mean the student has missed an entire day of school. It can mean he or she just missed one period.

While Berkeley Unified School District has always sought to limit truancy, with mixed success, (and has been criticized by the Alameda County District Attorney for a lax truancy plan), the matter took on a new urgency after the spate of gun violence that erupted at the high school last year, according to Karen Hemphill, a member of the school board. To help combat truancy, the district hired Roose to work half time on truancy issues, she said. There are also now three clerks, rather then two, in the attendance office.

“It is now something the district is purposeful about,” said Hemphill. “Before, there wasn’t a systematic plan in place.”

In his July 2011 interview with Berkeleyside, Berkeley High Principal Pasquale Scuderi said attendance was one of his four key areas of focus for the 2011-12 academic year.

The high school has instituted a number of new programs to stem truancy, and many of them are based on more personal contact then there ever was in the past, said Roose. For years, families would get an automated call when a student missed a class with few details about which period he or she had missed. Now the automated calls include those specifics, according to Hemphill.

Every other week, a group of 20 volunteers gets together and calls the families of kids who have a high number of absences.

“The personal approach is the best,” said Roose. “We personally call every single family and say this is the situation.”

Families of students who have four or more unexcused absences are required to come in and meet with school officials.

Kids with three or more unexcused absences are now barred from attending school dances.

“For a lot of kids, that is a big incentive to come to class,” said Roose.

The school has also started to do two different kinds of truancy sweeps, said Roose. Every other week, on alternating days, campus monitors, a student resource officer from the Berkeley Police Department, Roose, and Susan Craig, the head of student services, walk the neighborhood around Berkeley High to look for students who should be in class.

“We don’t manacle kids and throw them into a paddy wagon,” said Roose. “We stop them, write down their names, escort them back to school, and call their families that night. Kids are getting the message that you can’t walk off the campus and no one will notice you.”

Every other week, a similar group snags kids who walk into school late after lunch. The parents of those children also get a phone call. Berkeley High is also trying to offer enticements for kids to have a good attendance record. The school gave out a prize during Spirit Week to the class with the best attendance. The ninth grade won.

The tightening of the perimeter at the high school this year has also helped reduce the number of students just wandering out of class when they feel like it. Now there are campus monitors at each of the four entrances to quiz students about where they are going.

“If you want to increase student achievement and student learning, kids need to be in their seats,” said Roose. “Kids need to be in their class. The district gets that. The board gets that. Our principal is very dedicated to that.”

Students see security changes at Berkeley High [09/02.11]
Pasquale Scuderi on his first year as head of Berkeley High [07.07.11] 

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...