On the truancy front line

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From the Baltimore Sun

On the truancy front line

With tougher federal standards, pupil personnel workers receive renewed emphasis in curbing school dropout rates

By Ruma Kumar
Sun Reporter

January 24, 2007

Sal Maggio drove along a stretch of run-down townhouses in Brooklyn Heights looking for the closest thing to a neighborhood landmark – a rusted basketball hoop-stand secured to the road by the weight of an old broken television.

He found the landmark and the home to which it belongs, then knocked on the stained door rattling with the bass of hip-hop music.

Maggio, one of 12 “pupil personnel workers” for Anne Arundel County schools, had come to check on a teenager with development disabilities. He wants to get the 17-year-old boy, whom Maggio has counseled since fifth grade, into a school for severely disabled students where he would get job training and one-on-one attention.

Part social worker, part truant officer and part counselor, pupil personnel workers such as Maggio work closely with troubled students and their families, trying to curb dropout rates.

It’s an idea that is drawing renewed interest around the region as school systems struggle to meet the demands of tougher federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act that penalize schools for high absenteeism and low graduation rates.

Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell wants to more than double the number of such workers, whose numbers dwindled from 32 to 12 amid budget cuts over the past three years.

In Baltimore City, which doesn’t have any pupil personnel workers, officials want to add nine workers for at-risk schools at a cost of nearly $500,000. Prince George’s County Superintendent John E. Deasy has proposed adding 52 such workers by August 2008, at a cost of more than $4 million. Under pending budget requests, the number of workers would go up by one apiece to 11 in Carroll and Harford counties; to 19 in Howard; and to 39 in Baltimore County.

“I can certainly sympathize with the conflict and the sense of desperation that school districts feel when they’re being asked to do so much with so little,” said Mary Beth Harris, a school social work expert and professor at the University of Central Florida who recently co-edited a popular handbook for school-based social workers and counselors. “But school districts can’t afford to ignore the needs of the students that are not going to be able to make it if they don’t get that special intervention.”

The cost of not providing that help in the short term, Harris said, is behavior problems in the classroom, high truancy rates, and heightened stress for teachers, which in turn leads to greater turnover.

The long-term implications, Harris said, are even more troubling: spiking high school dropout rates, as well as a strain on social services, the criminal justice system and other public sectors. Some economists estimate that the cost nationally at about $84 billion a year.

Maxwell, a longtime educator in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties who was tapped last year to be Anne Arundel’s superintendent, said the pupil personnel workers are needed to avoid harsh sanctions for failing schools under federal and state school quality standards that weigh attendance and graduation.

“Some of these kids, they slip off the radar very easily unless you have someone watching out for them, someone checking up on them, being that connection between the home and the school,” Maggio said.

Maryland State Department of Education data show that as the number of Anne Arundel’s pupil personnel workers was slashed, the county schools experienced a sharp rise in truancy rates.

With competing needs for additional special education teachers, full-day kindergarten and safety and security concerns, it’s unclear whether the additional workers are a luxury the system can afford. Maxwell has asked for an increase of $131 million – or 17 percent – in county funding.

Parents, principals and teachers who spoke at a public hearing held by the Anne Arundel school board this month said the workers are on the frontlines of the school system’s battle to reduce truancy and dropout rates.

Last week, Maggio’s calendar included meetings with teenage mothers, rape victims, drug dealers and foster care children in abusive homes. For these children, life forces education to the back burner. Sometimes, Maggio is their only reminder – and connection – to school. At times, he is their advocate and sometimes a law enforcer.

For the first time in four years, he’s assigned to just one school. But many of his colleagues juggle more than a dozen schools.

Margaret Collins, a pupil personnel worker in the Glen Burnie area, helps 13 schools and handles about 300 student cases a year. She said she would love to do more home visits as Maggio does, but her caseload is so heavy that she sometimes has to settle for working out problems with children and families over the phone.

“I just don’t have the time to do the kind of follow-up I’d like to do,” Collins said.

In addition to mentoring and counseling, pupil personnel workers have been responsible this year for making sure that hundreds of middle and high school students get new state-required immunizations. They’re also responsible for investigating students who live outside Anne Arundel County, but falsify addresses to attend school here. Workers across the county have identified about 147 such cases this year, up from 62 last year.

“Boundary jumpers,” as they’re known, cost the Anne Arundel system from $500,000 to $1.6 million a year, based on per-pupil cost figures released by the school system. The most severe problems are in northern Anne Arundel (where Maggio handled 62 of the 147 cases this year) and the southern part of the county.

The families mostly come from Baltimore City, Baltimore, Howard and Prince George’s counties. Amid recent budget strains, Anne Arundel County is getting more vigilant about enforcing the rules.

Some families opt for Anne Arundel schools for a variety of reasons, Maggio and other workers say. They had behavior problems in another system and moved here to avoid expulsion. Domestic violence and juvenile crime issues sometimes also force them across the county line, Maggio said.

“You can’t be mad at these parents for trying to give their children the best they can,” Maggio said.

The residency investigations can be taxing, but much of what the workers do centers around curbing truancy.

In 2001, when the system had 32 pupil personnel workers, Anne Arundel County schools had 665 truants – defined as students who missed 36 days or more of school.

Last year, with 12 pupil personnel workers spread among 118 schools, the number of truants was up to 1,105, according to an attendance report by the State Department of Education. That’s no coincidence, said Rhonda Gill, the school system’s director of student services.

“There was no one available to step in their shoes and take over for all the PPWs that were cut,” Gill said. “There was no one to go to the homes, knock on the doors, and work with parents. We know chronic absences are symptomatic of a larger problem in the home. And there was no one to help with that.”

The northern fringe of Anne Arundel, near Baltimore, particularly is struggling with severe absenteeism.

Attendance data from the state show that between 2002 and 2005, the number of truants in North County High increased by 127 percent, from 180 to 410. In the same time frame, other schools reported similar spikes – from 187 to 318 at Old Mill High; from 181 to 252 at Annapolis High; and from 304 to 338 at Glen Burnie High.

Teachers, principals and guidance counselors in schools, no matter how caring and compassionate, don’t have the time for home visits and follow-up with individual students, Gill said.

“In our environment of high stakes testing, making sure kids are learning – that has to be the focus of the instructional leaders,” Gill said. “The pupil personnel workers are the only way we can really connect with the families.”

Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun