'Truancy Court' program helps students increase attendance, grades

BALTIMORE - According to the Baltimore City State's Attorney's office, there were 29 cases during the 2013-2014 school year where parents were charged after their kids missed too much school.

One group says in Baltimore City, truancy is a problem. They're stepping in to encourage both parents and students to increase attendance and grades.

"Your attendance has improved dramatically. That's what we want to hear," Judge Yvette Bryant said to a student early Monday morning. Judge Bryant volunteers with the program.

READ MORE | Maryland schools seek answers to address chronic absenteeism

It's a part of the University of Baltimore's Center for the Families, Children, and Courts' "Truancy Court" program, an outlet for professionals to reach out to students whose attendance has been slipping. Despite the title, it's not a court-of-law case at all. The program is completely voluntary on the part of the students and their parents. It encourages them to get to school on time and focus on their studies.

"We were aware of the fact that truancy and dropout [rates] were serious problems in the Baltimore City Public Schools," said Director of CFCC Barbara Babb. "And while much of the work of the center is at a national and state and sometimes international level, this is a way for us to be able to assist in a very positive way with the city of Baltimore."

Right now, about eight Baltimore city schools are involved. Each has their own staff of social workers, mentors, attorneys, and a Maryland Judge, reaching out to a select group of students to cut back on truant behavior and build up goals and in turn, grades.

"When we look at this problem, we have to try to root out the reason the child is not attending and participating fully," said Judge Bryant. "If we don't look at these kids as individuals, and find out why these kids as individuals are not coming to school, we're never going to be able to solve their problems."

Ge-Kiara Spann, 15, is one of around 50 students who line up each week, going through her weekly reports on Monday morning.

"The positive news is that when you are coming late, which we of course want you to come on time, at least you're coming close to the school time," the group told Spann.

The 15-year-old treks from the east side all the way across the city because she has big dreams of becoming a pediatrician. She says the Medical Arts Academy is her best bet to make that happen.

"Because this is a citywide school and kids come from all over the place, you'll find that in the winter when it's still dark in the morning, they're late a lot more, because their parents don't want them at the bus stop at night. And that's understandable. They're navigating a lot of barriers," said Judge Bryant.

Judge Bryant volunteers her time reaching out to the kids the best way she knows how. "Are you ever late to the hairdresser?" She said laughingly to one of the students.

She uses humor to let the kids know the seriousness of truancy and slipping grades.

"It's more than just, 'Are you coming to school this week?' for me. It's life. And unfortunately, you have to prepare earlier and earlier for success," she said.

Spann met with the group each Monday for the past ten weeks. In that time, she's pulled up her grades and attendance. A 72 percent in the first quarter is now a beaming 98. She says the success feels "good."

"Not seeing nobody frown and look upon me and not saying that I'm a bad child. And getting here on time and making me feel appreciative in myself," she said.

Each semester, about 70 percent of the students graduate the program.

Each year, about 40 Baltimore city schools apply to be a part of the program, but due to funding, only about eight schools at a time can benefit.

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