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Campaign raises school attendance

Phoning parents, visiting homes and other tactics have helped draw 6,000 more students per day to Hillsborough classrooms.

For nearly three years, a small army of social workers, guidance counselors, disabled workers, teachers and principals has fanned out each morning in search of the missing:

Students who chose the mall over school, students who dart about campus without making an appearance in homeroom, students who haven't warmed their classroom seats in weeks.

They have phoned parents, visited homes, scoured campuses.

All to great effect.

Attendance rates are steadily improving in Hillsborough County schools. Overall attendance was 90 percent three years ago, but today it hovers around 94 percent. The percentage change may seem small, but that's roughly 6,000 more kids in school each day.

The improvement comes at a propitious time: Under a new state law, school funding will be partly based on how many students are in class each day.

With that in mind, school officials say they plan to continue pushing.

"We want to have it at 96 percent," Joe Trumbach, the director of administration, said of student attendance.

The trick to the turnaround, school officials say, is a dogged, unrelenting focus on the problem.

"Three years ago we realized that attendance was very poor. Kids got lax and parents didn't take it seriously enough," said Deputy Superintendent Beth Shields, who has championed the effort. "We put together a committee and really worked at it."

The first step was charging school guidance counselors, principals and secretaries with calling the home of every kid missing from school. (To avoid making unneeded phone calls, staffers weeded out the names of kids on the attendance rolls who had dropped out, moved or transferred to private school.)

At the same time, schools were given special phone lines designated for parents who wanted to report their child's absence.

For the most egregious truants, social workers were dispatched. They visited homes and spoke with parents, often discovering serious underlying problems contributing to a student's absences.

"The problems could be anything from economic hardship to mental health problems to a student beyond the control of a parent," said Ken Gaughan, who oversees the district's team of 72 social workers.

The district also took advantage of a new state law that deprives truants of driver's licenses. District officials were particularly aggressive in reporting truants to the state.

But the officials recognized that sticks alone would not work.

So incentives were introduced.

Middle school students were given bonus points for their grade averages; high school students were given exam exemptions.

"People wonder why we have to have bonuses and exemptions. The best students we have out there will occasionally take a day off. But with incentives, they think twice," Shields said.

This school year, the district went further.

Since December, students suspended from school have been able to attend special classes, called Alternative to Out of School Suspension, which enable students to avoid unexcused absences during their suspension.

To date, roughly 3,000 students have gone through the program.

The added bonus, district officials say, is while the kids avoid earning an absence, they also stay occupied and out of trouble.

The district also has bolstered efforts to reach parents of absent students.

School district employees, injured on the job, have been tapped to call absentees' homes. For many, it's a chance to be productive again.

"This is it," said Arthur Carico, 50, a former carpenter and locksmith for the school district who helps make phone calls at three schools and assists a social worker with her research. "I'm making a career of this."

He already can see the effects of his work. When he began phoning parents of absent students, he often had a list that ran three pages. Now it's usually just one.

Carico's tales from the front lines are music to district officials' ears.

The officials say they will never win the most important battles without first tackling attendance.

"If they're not in school, then they're not learning," Shields said.

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