Natalie* is a smart and witty sophomore at Mission High in San Francisco. Despite her struggles with ulcers and depression, she tries to make it to school on time every day. But since Natalie commutes across town, taking two buses in the process, some days she is late for her 8:10 a.m. history class. Last time she walked into class 10 minutes late, her teacher Ms. Bowman nodded and smiled at her without interrupting the lecture.
If Natalie went to public school in Los Angeles, though, she might have been stopped by a police officer at the bus stop or near the school entrance. The police officer would question her about her tardiness, might search her bag, and would write up a ticket for $240. That’s because until recently, the Los Angeles city and school police would do “sweeps” near schools and give out tickets to students who were late or not in class.
Natalie’s district, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), uses six “carrots” or goes through six, school-based counseling and intervention steps before a truant student is referred to the District Attorney’s office. Mission High School principal Eric Guthertz told me that most students who have attendance issues are usually dealing with a crises at home or at school. “There is a lot of room before you get to the police. We meet with the parents and students many times, and we do home visits. In some extreme cases, a police officer might drive us to the house, but we do the talking,” he told me. While school-based counseling and interventions take more time and resources than referring them to police, it works better in the long haul, Guthertz says. And he’s got numbers to prove it. The drop out rate at Mission High went down from 8.8 percent to 1.6 percent last year, after more school-based measures were implemented. SFUSD reports that the attendance among chronically truant students at the elementary school level in San Francisco also went up 33 percent.