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Monday, Dec. 31, 2007

New Programs Attempt To Reduce Rate of Truants, Dropouts

Advocates try to stop the “one-way ticket to poverty&rdquo

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The future of Milwaukee might be dim unless something can be done to keep kids in school, says Mayor Tom Barrett.

So when Barrett spoke recently to a group of students at Marshall High School, he gave them one simple message: “I’m begging you to stay in school.”



It’s a plea that he delivers often, even though some might say the issues of truancy and dropouts are problems that should be tackled by the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).



But Barrett says he’s involved because the city’s outlook is riding on whether Milwaukee’s youth decide to stay in school or hit the streets.



“The future of the city is directly intertwined with the future of education in the city, whether the workforce is trained or not trained,” the mayor said. “If they are not trained, we see many problems. It’s like a one-way ticket to poverty.”



But the mayor said he realizes it takes more than talking about money to attack the problem. He recognizes that Milwaukee’s record on truancy and dropouts is not good, based on most measures, although there is some disagreement on where Milwaukee ranks in relation to other cities. A study released in 2006 by the conservative Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank, showed that 94 of the 100 largest school districts in the United States have a higher graduation rate than their estimated MPS rate of 45%.



MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos says the graduation rate is closer to 67%, but agrees that attendance is an area the district needs to focus on.



“We are working on initiatives to get more students in school and we have seen an increase in high school attendance in the last three years,” he said.



He noted that more emphasis has been placed on having advisers, social workers and even law enforcement in the schools to make them safer for students and more family friendly.



“In this recently passed budget, we have also increased after-school programming to have a positive impact and we have increased funding for arts, music and physical education,” the superintendent said. “We want to give students positive outlets.”



TABS Launched

One of the main programs that MPS has been involved with includes the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) and two of the Boys & Girls Clubs centers, in an effort to pick up truants and dropouts and bring them to the two centers for counseling. The program is called Truancy Abatement and Burglary Suppression, or TABS.



MPD Sgt. Robert Eckert, who serves as TABS police liaison, said four police officers are assigned to the two TABS sites. Their job is to look for truants and dropouts and bring them to the sites for questioning and counseling. Eckert said that of the approximately 2,400 stops the officers made from Sept. 3 through last week, about 1,200 resulted in truants being brought to the TABS centers.



“We are just trying to get kids back into school,” Eckert said.



Eckert said he believes the strategy is important, but he acknowledged that there has been a 9.2% increase in the number of truants and dropouts taken to the centers compared to the first semester period in 2006.



TABS program director Jody Ebbinger, who has personally counseled many truants and dropouts, said there are numerous reasons why students stop coming to school.



“One main thing I see is a lack of parental involvement,” she said. “That is sometimes because there is a lack of resources, so parents end up working two jobs. So poverty is certainly one of the underlying issues.”



Ebbinger said that becomes more of a problem in single-parent households, which inherently have less supervision for students and less time for parental involvement and mentoring.



Ebbinger acknowledged that only 20 students per day can receive the counseling they need at each of the two centers, but said she feels like that is making a dent in the problem.



“We are just a piece of the puzzle,” she said. “But one thing we do that’s unique is to continue to identify kids who aren’t on any school rosters. Usually we run into about 100-150 kids not enrolled in any school.”



District Attorney John Chisholm said yet another strategy was formalized last week when his office signed an agreement with MPS to dedicate a prosecutor to help devise approaches to dealing with truants and dropouts, many of whom end up in the courts for various crimes.



“We will help identify the most at-risk schools and most at-risk kids in the schools and also identify programs to keep them in school or bring them back,” Chisholm said. “We want to get some strong mentoring programs in place. Some of these kids are facing desperate conditions and are thinking about surviving just that day, not thinking about going to college and their future income.”



Chisholm said his office could help focus on factors like gang affiliation and could even provide “streetwise mentors” to help advise dropouts and truants on what paths to take.



“If these kids don’t stay in school, they end up in jail, prison or in the grave,” Chisholm said.



Zielinski’s Solution

Milwaukee Alderman Tony Zielinski said he has seen the impact of truancy and dropouts in his district, particularly on crime rates in Bay View.



Zielinski recently shepherded an ordinance through the Milwaukee Common Council that fines the businesses that serve truants and dropouts.



“A number of the businesses along Kinnickinnic Avenue were serving these kids,” he said. “There were so many at McDonald’s that we were calling them ‘McTruants.’ And we were getting a lot of complaints from constituents.”



Zielinski said he went into that McDonald’s once at 8:40 a.m. on a school day and there were 40 kids there. He said many of them were truants or dropouts who had not yet reached the age of 18, when they can legally drop out of school in Wisconsin.



“I believe the businesses have a responsibility to make sure they are not serving these kind of kids,” he said. “So I pushed for this to be added to the nuisance abatement ordinance.”



The ban applies citywide and allows police to cite businesses that serve truants. If the business does not stop serving kids during school hours, it can be declared a “nuisance property” and can thereafter receive citations as high as $5,000 per offense. Usually the police work with a business first to stop the practice before a citation is issued, the alderman said.



Zielinski said he also worked with MPS to get counselors into Bay View High School. The alderman said the counselors work with opinion leaders and try to train students to be more interested in school and pass that interest on to their peers.



“We have seen marked improvement in the area because of this and I would definitely recommend this to other areas in the school district,” Zielinski said. “It has helped keep kids in school and increase graduation rates.”