Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

72% of MPS High School Students Are Truants

"Habitual students" have at least 5 unexcused absences per semester. Many get picked up by police.

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Keeping TABS

King leads one of the city’s two TABS centers, which are located on the north and south sides of the city at Boys and Girls Clubs locations.

The comprehensive support program allows for MPD, MPS and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee to intervene with students who are truant, deterring them from involvement in the criminal justice system.

Only 16 percent of the youth processed at a center are picked up a second time, said King, who attributes the program’s success to its collaborative approach.

MPS social worker Jon Vanstechelman analyzes a student’s attendance at the South Side TABS Center. (Photo by Kelly Meyerhofer)

MPS social worker Jon Vanstechelman analyzes a student’s attendance at the South Side TABS Center. (Photo by Kelly Meyerhofer)

“Unlike other programs, we have the clout,” she explained. “We can say ‘you’re going to have to go to court.’ Other programs can’t say that because they don’t have the connection with the police officers or municipal courts.”

Officers such as Pecoraro comb the streets for truants and shuttle them to a center where an MPS social worker evaluates their needs. After conferring with the student’s parent or guardian, the social worker develops an action plan that holds both the student and the adult accountable.

In the first three months of 2014, MPD officers picked up more than 1,500 students at almost 740 stops, according to data provided by Milwaukee Police Lieutenant Mark Stanmeyer.

King estimates her site averages 20 to 30 interviews on any given school day.  Between the two centers, the TABS program assists about 5,000 students each school year.

Not all of these students are picked up off the streets. After 25 unexcused absences, MPS generates a mandatory TABS referral that King said amounts to about 2,000 referrals each year.

Only students ages 12 and above can be cited and fined $84 for truancy, said Milwaukee Deputy District Attorney Lovell Johnson. Parents of younger students are cited for contributing to truancy and must pay a $171 fine or fight the charge in court. But Johnson said prosecution is a last resort. The cases can be easily dismissed if there is a visible improvement in attendance.

“Few things with law enforcement actually work to lower truancy rates,” said Alan Borsuk, a public policy fellow at Marquette Law School. “What does work is engaging the kids with what they’re learning.”

Dan Herro, a teacher at Washington High School of Information Technology, 2525 N. Sherman Blvd., agrees with Borsuk’s observation. He said that whenever field trips or guest speakers are scheduled, attendance numbers are much better.

“It’s a matter of having an engaging curriculum,” Herro said. “That’s what’s going to keep them in the classroom.”

Mentoring also keeps students in their seats.

At least that’s what the Check and Connect program has found. Started in the Minneapolis public schools in 1990, the federally funded program initially aimed to help special education students.

After realizing how successful the program was with these students, Minneapolis Public Schools extended Check and Connect to all students in grades K-12. Using their own set of standards, individual schools identify at-risk students and pair them with a mentor, who “checks” the students weekly by monitoring attendance and grades, but also “connects” with the student and parents by making a minimum two-year commitment.

Mentors can be full-time employees hired by the district to juggle 40 to 50 students or a teacher within the school who agrees to meet with a couple of students on the side.

Different variations of the program spread throughout the nation after studies found students displayed increased levels of engagement, especially attendance, after two years in the program.

Said Check and Connect project coordinator Sharon Mule, “Sometimes all kids need is to know there’s someone rooting for them.”

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

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2 thoughts on “72% of MPS High School Students Are Truants”

  1. PMD says:

    When I was teaching in MPS, truancy was of course a problem. And sure some students were just not serious about school and their frequent absence was no surprise. But I remember a significant number of students being absent for things like babysitting family members or lack of transportation. They didn’t like missing school but had no choice. It was really sad.

  2. KGK says:

    Hey Urban Milwaukee, I’m kind of surprised at the screaming headline. Your article explains various reasons that students receive unexcused absences, which are labeled as truancy after eight occurences. As an MPS parent who gets those calls for things like leaving school early for a forensics meet, volunteering for a school event, etc. AND being a parent with a phone number that is never disconnected, who has time during the business day to call the school’s attendance office to follow up and clear it up, I understand how easily it can be to

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