schools.jpgSan Francisco city and school district leaders had a message for the children who are starting school this Monday–show up.

“People think that attendance is not a big deal. Well, it is a big deal,” San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia said at a news conference this afternoon at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School in the city’s Mission District.

Garcia was joined this afternoon by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon to announce that the number of habitually and chronically absent children in public schools has dropped for the fourth year in a row.

They were also there to remind students and parents that the crackdown on chronic absenteeism is ongoing and that the trend can begin at a young age.

Garcia said that the school district has already sent out 976 letters to the parents and guardians of students in kindergarten through second grade who had a high rate of absenteeism last school year.

Garcia said the school district and district attorney’s office established a system about five years ago that partners with city agencies, students’ parents, and organizations such as the YMCA-run Truancy Assessment and Resource Center to identify truants, figure out why the student is absent from school, and attempt to resolve the issue.

The district attorney’s office is integral to the model. The office sends out a letter to parents at the beginning of each school year explaining that it is illegal to keep children out of school.

Once truants are identified, the district attorney’s office often steps in to intervene. Garcia said their involvement is not intended to be punitive and they try to avoid prosecution if possible.

In most cases, he said, it is a matter of connecting the parents with the proper resources, like affordable childcare.

For Gascon, who dropped out of a high school in Los Angeles Unified School District, the topic of truancy hits close to home.

Gascon said he started missing classes in 10th grade and missed about 40 days of school in the first semester of 11th grade. “I think in 12th grade I visited the school a few times,” he said.

With parents who worked long hours and a lack of assistance from his high school, Gascon said he “had the run of the town.”

Gascon credits the Army with setting him on the right path but feels his past gives him a special understanding and influence with truant youth.

“When I talk to kids who are where I was, I have the ability to connect on a different level.”

And now as the district attorney, Gascon said he has another unique perspective on truancy: “I know the connection between lack of education and the road to prison.”

Torlakson praised the city’s model of absentee intervention and prevention. “This is truly momentous,” he said. “I’m holding this up as a model we can follow statewide.”

He said that what starts off as a pattern of skipping school in kindergarten and first and second grades leads “to the streets, to the gangs, to the drugs.”

Only the top of second-grader Jackson Moran’s head was visible when he first stepped up to the podium but the 7-year-old was adamant about his reason for attending school. “If you don’t learn to read–it’s not fun,” he said.

He assured the crowd that the district attorney’s office did not have to worry about him. “I’ll be here on the first day.”

Erika Heidecker, Bay City News

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