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Intercept truants in early grades — Q&A with Abraham Simmons

SF Public Press
 — Feb 24 2010 - 6:49pm

Recently, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced a comprehensive initiative to get kids back in school.

“The school district alone would never solve truancy drop-out,” Newsom said, “and perhaps that has been our biggest failure: allowing the school district to deal with the issue when they cannot do it alone.”

His plan includes establishing a truancy drop-off center, where truant students and their families could go, with the end goal of getting the students back in school. It is scheduled to open in March.

But some critics have said addressing truancy earlier in a student’s academic career would be a better use of resources.

The Board of Supervisors also chimed in late last year, asking the San Francisco Unified School District to create a comprehensive truancy plan. To date, no such document has been produced. School district representatives did not respond to several requests for comment.

According to the report, a follow-up to a 2003 report, 20 percent of the city’s students will drop out of school. The rate is twice that for African American students compared with their peers.

Abraham Simmons, an assistant U.S. attorney, was the chairman of the civil grand jury that conducted the report. He’s worked with at-risk teens in mock court programs for the past 20 years.


Question: What was your reaction after reading the 2003 report and comparing it with the present situation?

Answer:  There’s a line that appears in the report that was put in by the grand jury that says,“What an outrage, where is the outrage?” We have been dealing with a circumstance in San Francisco that has not changed over the past six, seven years.  That is a circumstance where at least 5,500 kids are chronically or habitually truant every year. That contributes to one-fourth of our minority children and one-fifth of all of our kids dropping out of school before they get through high school. To not focus on this problem, I think, is just an outrage. 

Q: You were very critical of SFUSD and the Board of Supervisors in the report — were those the two bodies you viewed as not pulling their weight?

A: Those were the two we focused on. You’ll take a look at the first report back in 2003 and there was a strong recommendation that the district attorney get involved, that there be a creation of the mediation program, that there be the creation of a more systematic approach of putting the most recalcitrant parents before a judge and to really focus on what I call the “stick” aspect of the carrot and stick of getting kids to school. And a lot of that has happened. What has not happened is to have the administration of the schools  focus their resources on reducing truancy, and to streamline their process, and to identify kids earlier in the year who are not showing up to school, and to pass those names through the system more quickly, so that we know sometime before April who’s not showing up.

Q: The report says that the school attendance review boards (SARBs) tend to happen in the end, when they should be happening in the beginning of the year.

A: Right, and there needs to be some understanding about that. There is an elaborate process that the school board, or that the SFUSD anyway, has put together to try and get the kids back into school without having to go to school attendance review boards. That process is just way too lengthy and way too cumbersome. They’ve  got to streamline the process, make it a lot quicker. Identify the children. Get them into school in the beginning of the year, not the end of the year. I suppose part of what motivates people to try and draw that process out is to give everyone a chance. Give the teacher a chance, and then the principal a chance, and then the counselors a chance, and then the student success teams, and all the other mechanisms that the schools have put together, to try and get the kids back into class. When you have chronic truancy like this, when you have habitual truancy, it just is not worth it.

Q: What were some other problems?

A: If I had to say, one of the most important things is to get better data. There’s an entire appendix on some of the problems with the data collection. We simply, especially with elementary school truancy, have to identify early in the year the reasons for the truancy. So without knowing for ourselves whether it’s a homelessness problem, or if it’s a child-care issue, or if it’s just not listening to the alarm clock, or if there are not enough parents at home that are focusing on schools. Without identifying the problem, there’s no way we can task our resources to deal with the problem. One of the things that we are trying to convince the Board of Supervisors of is that they are the ones with the resources to actually address the problem.

Q: Why is this issue important to you?

A: Well for the past 20 years, I’ve been working with high school kids, mostly in mock trial and moot court programs and mostly at-risk kids, with what we call the court school. While these are wonderful efforts, and many people doing many  things to try and give last-ditch efforts, it is so late in the process that it makes no sense. If we can take care of elementary school truancy, we can prevent kids from having to go to the court school in the first place. It just seems so logical. The question is whether we’re willing to put in the resources into making sure it happens. We know now that if we can have a kid read well at grade level by the third grade, our chances are exponentially better to have to prepare a college room for this kid then to have to prepare a prison cell.  It is not going to be possible for our kids to survive in this world if we cannot educate them. Get them at least through high school. I am an African American. I know that the problem affects my community even more so than it does the general community, but this is a problem for everyone, really. Everyone is better off, every neighborhood is better off and we’re spending less money putting people in jail when we could put some money into schooling early so that they can make their own way. That’s why it’s so important to me.

Q: Is this a civil rights issue?

A: Oh, it is clearly a civil rights issue. Other than what appears in the report, I can’t really say anything more about the actual statements made by our leaders, but I will say that our leaders agree already, whether we’re talking about the Board of Education, the Board of Supervisors, the administration — I think it’s well recognized as a civil rights issue. The problem impacts our African American kids as opposed to our other kids, or our Hispanic children, as opposed to the population as a whole. You will find that these populations are definitely in a different boat altogether. The  rate of African Americans (is) twice as high. That’s something that we should be paying attention to. It is a civil rights issue, but it’s an economic issue, I think more than people understand as well.

Q: Do you mean the relative costs?

A: Exactly, the relative costs of  paying attention to truancy, especially in elementary school versus how to deal with problems 10, 20, 30 years down the line. The same kids who are in trouble with the law, who have to be incarcerated or who have to be tutored, or who we’re making expensive last-ditch efforts to keep in the end of their high school careers, are the same kids we could be taking care of for a whole lot less money early in their educational careers.  I think if we can hold our elected officials and SFUSD accountable, and if we can get collaboration between the two, we will take care of a lot of problems that the Board of Supervisors is working on in the back-end and that the Board of Education is not working on in the front end. That’s what I’m looking for, accountability and collaboration.

A video of Mayor Gavin Newsom addressing the press on the truancy initiative: