Sarah Goodyear

New York’s Youth Justice Board has produced a compelling set of recommendations to reduce truancy rates.

If you’re looking to solve problems that affect teenagers, you could do worse than asking teenagers themselves for some advice.

That’s the whole idea behind the Youth Justice Board, a project of New York’s Center for Court Innovation. Every year, the YJB recruits a group of about 20 New Yorkers between the ages of 14 and 18. In the first year of a two-year cycle, the students dig into an issue of particular relevance to youth and the justice system. Then they come up with recommendations, write a report, and work to get their suggestions implemented. In past years, the YJB has looked into reducing youth crime, safety in public schools, and improving the way the courts deal with foster children. In the second year, students work to implement the recommendations.

This year, the focus was on truancy. The YJB students just presented their report, "From Absent to Present: Reducing Teen Chronic Absenteeism in New York City" [PDF], to schools chancellor Dennis Walcott in a trip to city hall that represented the culmination of their work.

It was a big moment for this group of high schoolers, who found themselves getting a face-to-face hearing from the man in charge of the city’s schools and his aides.

"It was exciting, kind of nerve-racking," says Terry-Ann, a 17-year-old who was part of this year's class. (The program asks that the last names of the students not be used to protect their privacy.) Once she got over her nerves, Terry-Ann was pleased by the reception they got. "You could see from their facial expressions that they were very attentive," she says.

"They really cared about what we were saying," adds another YJB member, 16-year-old Elizabeth.

During their year of research and analysis, the YJB members learned about why students are absent and what the negative effects can be when kids don't show up for class. With the help of staff from the Center for Court Innovation, they turned their work into a polished, 10-point set of recommendations for how to better deal with chronic absenteeism.

The recommendations in the YJB report include:

  • Examining the impact of security procedures on student attendance
  • Helping teens draw connections between school attendance and their futures
  • Preparing schools to support students who are returning from extended absences
  • Having mentoring programs available in all schools to give chronically absent students the attention they need

First on the list is to change the way we talk about missing school, replacing the term "truancy," which is often associated with the juvenile justice system, with "chronic absenteeism." That's important, according to the report, because "the term 'truancy' frames the issue in a negative way by blaming the student rather than focusing on a solution. On the other hand, the term 'chronic absenteeism' encompasses the many reasons a young person might miss school and helps to define which students most need interventions."

Whatever you call it, absence from school is a big problem in New York City. More than a quarter of a million of its students are absent for more than 10 percent of each school year. In some neighborhoods, nearly one in three is missing that much class time.

Nationally, 5 million students each year are chronically absent.

The consequences can be serious. Not only do students fall behind on their school work, they often never catch up, and end up dropping out altogether. Students who don't graduate from high school earn on average $10,000 less per year than those who do.

There can be serious non-academic outcomes as well. "There is a huge intersection between absenteeism and ending up in the justice system," says Linda Baird, associate director for youth justice programs at the Center for Court Innovation. An estimated 80 percent of juvenile offenders around the country also are missing school.

YJB members gained a deeper understanding of the complexity of the absenteeism problem through their research. Terry-Ann says that she grew to understand that many kids who don’t make it to school on a regular basis aren't skipping out because they're lazy or apathetic. They might be dealing with family issues, such as caring for younger siblings or helping foreign-born parents who need their assistance in translation.

"From this experience I have learned that there are other reasons, other than people not wanting to go to school," says Terry-Ann, who says she plans to pursue law as a career. "There are reasons beyond their control. By learning that, I was able to think of other ways to maybe be able to help the youth come to school and catch up and to succeed."

Next year's YJB class will work on putting some of the recommendations into action. One concrete goal is to produce a pamphlet that will explain to parents just how important school attendance is for their kids' future success.

The YJB kids know that there are no easy solutions to teen absenteeism, but they also feel they’ve made an important contribution toward finding creative approaches to addressing the issue.

"It's going to be really hard to find a way for this problem to come to an end," says Elizabeth. "There are a lot of reasons students don't come to school. To just find one solution, that's not going to work. We need to come up with different ideas."

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