By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group East Bay
Truancy and other absences are costing Berkeley High School more than $100,000 a month in state funding and the whole school district loses about $2.4 million a year, according to a recent report.
For each day a student is absent, the school district loses $29.73 in state funds which adds up quickly when you have a high school with 3,200 students and 9,400 students in the entire district.
Berkeley has been criticized by the Alameda County District Attorney for not having a policy to hold parents accountable for habitually truant kids. A recent drug and alcohol task force that found loose policies on truancy contribute to sky high rates of drug and alcohol use among Berkeley High School students.
Berkeley school board members approved the report showing the loss in funds at the same June 9 meeting where they decided to ask Berkeley residents for more money in property taxes to fund schools.
At that meeting they approved two ballot measure asking residents for $210 million in property taxes for construction projects and $5 million a year in taxes for maintenance.
But a crop of new administrators in the district, including Berkeley High School's new Principal Pasquale Scuderi, are pledging to crack down on truants and stop some of the losses.
Administrators say Berkeley schools never will achieve 100 percent attendance of all their students because of illnesses, emergencies, homelessness and other issues out of their control.
But they also admit that weak policies on dealing with truants is responsible for Berkeley schools losing a lot of money.
Scuderi acknowledged that his school can do better, especially when the school district is asking property owners for more money.
"We do have a responsibility to get kids to school, but I wouldn't discount the good work we are doing with community funds," Scuderi said. "I don't have a magic bullet for truancy, but it doesn't mean we're going to quit trying."
Scuderi said his school is trying several new tactics to keep kids in school including working with the Berkeley police department to do sweeps of Civic Center Park across the street from the school, working with the city parks department to report truant students urging downtown businesses to call the school when they see kids out of school and calling parents when students are absent in addition to the automated calls that are already made.
In addition to costing the school district money, the absences, especially at the high school, are part of the reason why Berkeley ninth and 11th graders in 2008 reported getting drunk and stoned at twice the state and national rates, according to a drug task force study released last spring.
That report said a lack of a policy to hold parents responsible for their kids truancy is contributing to the sky-high rates of Berkeley kids who use drugs and alcohol.
"The correlation between kids who are truant and those who drop out and who are eventually incarcerated is astronomical," said Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Teresa Drenick. Drenick runs a program for habitually truant kids and their families that tries to get them back in school. She has been critical of Berkeley Unified School District in the past because administrators have refused to participate in the DA's program.
She said she met recently with Berkeley administrators and characterized the meeting as "productive and friendly" but said it's too early in the school year to tell if Berkeley will actually refer students and parents to the program.
Susan Craig, the school district's new director of student services, said she's serious about working with the DA.
"For those few cases where all of our efforts to get the child in school are not successful, we will move forward with a hearing process and the district attorney if necessary," Craig said.
Scuderi said a new counseling program will start Friday that assigns each teacher in Berkeley High to 25 students for four years, a program that should help the truancy problem. That program, designed by former Principal Jim Slemp two years ago, also should help student achievement. Currently a small group of Berkeley High counselors have 250 to 300 students each.
Craig, who is responsible for truancy issues across the district, said she is pushing hard to get schools to help crack down on truant students.
A 97 percent attendance rate would be ideal, she said. District wide, attendance averaged about 94 percent most of last year, while attendance at Berkeley High averaged about 93 percent.
"I've been on board here for six weeks, and I would like for us to get an active truancy prevention and intervention program going in the district," Craig said.
"I have found that the principals are very much on board as are our community partners in the police department, the mental health department and the district attorney." Administrators working on the truancy issue last school year didn't give such a rosy assessment of Berkeley principals as Craig has now. Berkeley principals in both the high school and lower schools were fiercely opposed to referring habitually truant kids and their parents to the district attorney program, administrators said last spring.
When asked about previous reports of principals not wanting to participate in the district attorney program, Craig said: "I haven't had any resistance from any of the schools." But cracking down is not all it's going to take, Craig said. The district has 700 students who are homeless, something that makes their getting to school more difficult than kids with homes she said.
"Often times there are other things going on in their lives that the school doesn't know about," Craig said. "In some instances students are having major social issues and rather than telling their parents, they're just not going to school."