No child left behind

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 teachers.
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 attendance.

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 Act.
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 state.
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 attendance rate.
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 it.”
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 includes attendance.”

The reasons for truancy are complex, Brockton officials said.
“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 support.”
“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 school.
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.”

Sandy Coleman
5 May 2005

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