No child left
Brockton's struggle to keep students in school requires truant officer
to blend vigilance, sympathy
With the word truancy emblazoned across
the back of his work jacket, there was no mistaking Nikolas Outchcunis's
mission at about 9:15 a.m. on a recent school day, as he slowly cruised
the streets of Brockton in an unmarked car driven by a police officer.
Craning his neck to peek down side streets, questioning anyone who
looked like a teenager, the truancy officer for the city's public
schools was on the hunt for students skipping classes.
“Here's a kid; pull over,” Outchcunis told Patrolman Shawn Baker, who
quickly stopped the car on the wrong side of the road, a few feet ahead
of a youth dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt and baggy pants.
“How old are you?” asked Outchcunis, jumping out of the car. He
introduced himself and handed the boy his business card.
“Do you have your high school ID with you?” Outchcunis asked.
“It's broken,” the teen said, and explained that he was on his way to
school after oversleeping.
He said he had helped his mother move furniture the night before and had
gone to bed late.
Outchcunis said he accepted the excuse because it was too elaborate and
quick to be a lie. But he told the student that he would call the school
in five minutes to make sure he made it there.
“It's nice to meet you, and please try not to be late so much,”
Outchcunis said before getting back in the car.
Wearing a pink shirt and a floral-patterned tie, Outchcunis, 61, is not
the tough-guy truancy officer the title might suggest. But he is
unflinching in his approach, whether he is dealing with a cherub-faced
fifth-grader who said he would not return to school, even though he had
missed several weeks of classes, or trying to persuade parents to send
their child to school despite their clashes with administrators and
Outchcunis said his official title is supervisor of attendance. To be
certified by the state, truancy officers are required to be in good
moral standing, have experience working with juveniles, and have
training in psychology, guidance, or social work, according to the state
Department of Education. Most schools in the region do not have the
position, choosing instead to have school administrators monitor
But Outchcunis and Brockton's other truancy officer
have tough jobs. Brockton officials continually struggle to keep
attendance rates in the 16,000-student district high enough to meet
their own goals, and the standards of the federal No Child Left Behind
Local officials require students to attend at least 95 percent of class
sessions to receive a high school diploma. The No Child Left Behind Act
requires schools and districts to have an overall attendance rate of at
least 92 percent to be categorized as making “adequate yearly progress,”
said Heidi Perlman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
If attendance levels continually fall short and a district fails to meet
yearly progress standards, school officials could be required to offer
parents the option of sending their children to another school, to
provide supplemental services, or to restructure schools, according to
The Brockton district had a 92.8 percent attendance rate in the 2003-04
school year, according to Department of Education records. But Brockton
High School had a rate of 89.8 percent, and B.B. Russell, an alternative
high school for troubled teenagers, managed only a 58.5 percent
By comparison, most schools and districts in the region south of Boston
had attendance rates of 94 to 96 percent. Randolph had a 94.4 percent
rate, Quincy's was 94.3 percent, Cohasset's was 96.2 percent, and
Scituate had a 95.1 percent attendance rate. Westwood was tops in the
region, with 97 percent attendance in the 2003-04 school year.
On a recent day, Outchcunis visited the home of a Brockton woman who
told him she might seek court intervention if she can't get her
eighth-grade son to go to school. Since January, he had missed 48 days
and had been tardy 36 times.
The mother, on a day off from work, told Outchcunis that she had moved
from Boston to get her son away from bad influences. But he is staying
out until the early morning hours because he knows his mother, a single
parent, does not finish her work day until 4 a.m., she said.
She asked the truancy officer and a police officer to go to his school
to speak with him. “I'd like to get his attention,” she said.
Outchcunis did just that. He summoned the boy to a
meeting in a school office.
“I'm very concerned about your school attendance
record,” he told the boy, who remained silent. “This is what I expect. I
expect that you're going to pay attention to me and do something about
He sounded more like a father than a truancy officer. “Sometimes it's
not easy to move into a new place,” he said. “Kids are going to test
you. . . . The decisions you make are your decisions. Don't follow
someone who makes a bad decision.”
In districts where attendance is high, such talks are rarely necessary.
School officials say that a supportive community, involved parents, and
high expectations are crucial to creating an atmosphere in which
students want to attend classes.
“Parents here in town are very proeducation and supportive of the
school,” said Paul Ash, Westwood's school superintendent. “When you have
parents who place a very high value on education, and they pay very
close attention to their children's education, and there are extremely
dedicated teachers who communicate with parents, very few students slip
through the cracks.”
Denise Walsh, Cohasset's superintendent, said: “It's about high
expectations. When you set high expectations for achievement, that
The reasons for truancy are complex, Brockton
“If there was one clear reason, we would be able to target it and attack
it,” said Susan Szachowicz, Brockton High's principal.
Outchcunis said the biggest problem in Brockton is poverty, and the
problems that accompany it. “Poverty underlies a lack of parental
concern, lack of role models, the feeling of inadequacy,” he said.
According to the 2000 Census, the median household income in Brockton
was $39,507; Westwood's was $87,394. It also found that 14 percent of
the families in Brockton lived below the poverty level; in Westwood, 1.3
percent fell into that income category.
Ken Seeley, president of the National Center for School Engagement in
Denver, agrees that poverty can affect school attendance. “A lot of time
a parent's life is in such crisis that school is low on the list,” he
said. “A lot of kids are truant from school to provide economic
“Sometimes parents keep students home to take care of a sibling,”
Szachowicz said. “I'll bet that doesn't happen in Cohasset. Many of our
families are working immigrant families, working two and three jobs, and
nobody is at home. . . . That's what happens with poverty.
“The students feel disengaged from school,” she said. “Many times they
have no clear goals. Most often these kids don't see anything beyond
today or tomorrow.”
Sometimes parents don't know their child is skipping school, Szachowicz
said. Recently a parent expressed surprise when told a child had missed
21 days of school. “I drop them off at the door every day,” the parent
told the principal.
This year Brockton officials began using a computerized telephone call
system to automatically notify parents of students who were missing from
school without an excused absence.
“If a kid is chronically truant, a call home is not
going to produce the desired effect, because it suggests that parents
are not involved,” Szachowicz said.
That's where Outchcunis comes in. He and the city's other truancy
officer receive referrals from school officials to track down students
who have been chronically absent, and meet with parents who have been
unable or unwilling to change the child's behavior.
Every two weeks, he and a patrolman team up from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.,
looking for students on the streets. They also make about a dozen
surprise visits to the homes of chronic truants, to talk with parents
and, as recently happened, coax students out of bed and drive them to
Outchcunis originally took the job out of necessity: He had finished
serving in the Peace Corps and needed work. He kept it because he enjoys
working with young people.
“I guess I like kids,” Outchcunis said. “It's a job
where you can make a difference in someone's life. And it's incumbent
upon all of us to do something.”
5 May 2005