19 MAY 2004


Truancy court helps youths stay on track

When students come before him in truancy court, Judge Marco Roldan knows their problems because he once was one of them. Roldan has worked more than four years in the experimental program, which tries to build on a child's strengths instead of using punishment, threats and sanctions. Photo by NORMAN NG

Jackson County Judge Marco Roldan often cheers the elementary students who come before him. Sometimes he gently chastises them. But always he teaches that success at school creates success in life. It is a message from his life, delivered through an experimental truancy court.

There are seven such courts in schools in the Kansas City district and two in the Hickman Mills district. Each of the nine judges works with a Jackson County Family Court juvenile officer, a social worker and teachers at the elementary and middle schools. The goal is to help children who are missing school or have weak grades or other problems. Roldan's court, which meets weekly in the library of Kansas City's McCoy Elementary School, is bilingual and includes many poor Hispanic students. Roldan knows their problems because he once was one of them. When Roldan was 8, his divorced mother moved from Mexico to Kansas City with him, three brothers and a sister. His mother worked low-paying jobs and taught her children that only education would lead them to a better life. His mother died in January, but the judge continues her message.

More than four years ago, Roldan, 46, was the second Jackson County judge to volunteer for a new model of truancy courts. The courts began in 1997 in Louisville, Ky., and spread to other cities, including Kansas City and New York. Instead of punishment, threats and sanctions, the courts try to build on a child's strengths and help with family problems. In Jackson County, the first court started in 1999 at Smith-Hale Middle School in the Hickman Mills district. The court handled about 30 students the first year and helped transform Smith-Hale from the school with worst attendance in the district into the one with the best, officials said. The courts now handle about 270 students a year at nine schools in Jackson County. The schools pay about $390,000 for the courts but get more money from the state if attendance increases.

At McCoy Elementary, where Roldan presides, about 30 truancy-court students increased their attendance from about 85 percent to 94 percent for 2002-2003, the latest school year for which numbers were available. Roldan opens court at 7:30 a.m. every Thursday. Earlier this month, Roldan's support team and teachers reported on how each of about a dozen children did the week before.

Flor Velarde, 11, approached the judge with her mother and wished the judge good morning. Roldan led the students in a round of applause for her proper show of respect and then reminded Flor she had been ordered to double her homework effort because of a weak grade in social studies. The judge noted that extra effort had helped Flor raise her grades to A levels in several subjects, and she had not missed a day of school in four weeks. 滴ow about a hand for Flor for four weeks with no missed days, the judge yelled. Applause filled the library. Then he told Flor to work hard to raise her social studies grade in the few weeks before school ends for the summer. In the hallway afterward, Flor said she used to miss many days of school because of asthma attacks that the social worker helped get medicine to treat. As for the truancy court program, the fifth-grader said, 典hey helped me understand I had to read every day and I did. I got to a sixth-grade reading level.

Roldan praised 8-year-old Edgar Arevalo because the boy's teacher reported he was doing well in school and he had not missed a day in six weeks. 鏑ast semester wasn't like that, was it? Roldan told Edgar. 的f you continue to do this every day you're going to be very successful. Edgar's brother Luis, 10, got mixed reviews. Better grades and 登nly one missed day in 10 weeks awesome, Roldan said, 澱ut you were doing things in the hallway you weren't supposed to be doing. That's not the Luis I know. At the end of court proceedings, Roldan reminded them the students were to get together the next week for a bowling and pizza party. Luis and Edgar said the program helped them get to school and improve their grades. 展e used to sleep and miss the bus, Luis said. Now their grandmother is involved and gets them up and to the school bus. After court, Roldan said his mother used to force him to read every day just as he asks his students to do. She pushed education on him and his siblings, just as he does with the students. 鉄he brought us up to succeed, he said.

Did it work?
One of his brothers is an FBI administrator, another a business manager, another an Air Force retiree, and his sister has a master's degree and works in education, he said.

By Joe Lambe


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