For Whom the Bell Tolls

Electronic monitoring may dramatically curb truancy. So why isn't DISD interested?

On a cloudy May morning, the 1,700 students of Bryan Adams High School enter the building in different states of haste, some racing to class to beat the 8:35 bell, some loitering with friends unaware of time or space, some openly defiant and bent on being tardy.

A metal detector slows down traffic and Fanny Aragon, as she stands in a line of students and grows anxious about being late. Aragon, 16, hands over her bags for inspection. Inside her black purse sits the key to her punctuality, a Global Positioning System, which tracks her whereabouts 24/7 in a court-ordered attempt to keep her in school. Aragon has a history of ditching class, missing the majority of her first semester in the ninth grade because of a miscarriage. She spent some time in the hospital and then simply couldn't muster the strength to come back to school.

"I felt depressed and didn't want to socialize," Aragon says. "I just wanted to be by myself."

The GPS device she carries is lightweight, looks like a walkie-talkie and is part of an innovative program to prevent students from dropping out. Aragon is one of the thousands of Dallas adolescents whose chronic truancy—missing more than 50 school days a year—swells the dockets of Dallas County's four truancy courts. The program, administered by the Dallas County Truancy Court-North, is called Attendance Improvement Management and is one of only a few programs nationwide using GPS to force kids to attend school.

AIM's monitoring system employs a cell phone and provides for constant surveillance via satellite, tracking Aragon's position within 5 to 10 feet of her location. The signal is picked up every 10 minutes and sent to a computer, but since most kids live close to school, each one is required to press a locator button three times in case the signal is lost inside the building. Aragon does this three times a day: when she arrives at school in the morning, at lunchtime and after coming home for her obligatory 9 p.m. curfew when she receives an automated digital phone call that requires her to call back within three minutes. Upon returning the call, she must read a series of numbers, and the system recognizes her voice, which confirms her identity. If Aragon does not respond to calls or isn't where she's supposed to be, a Dallas County constable picks her up and brings her to court.

Those who work with dropouts say truancy is just the symptom of much deeper problems. Some kids cut class because they are drinking and drugging, others are too tired to come to school because they work late to help their families pay bills or baby-sit their younger siblings so their parents can work late. Some are runaways or throwaways, having no one at home who gives a damn about them, much less their education. And some are just plain lazy.

The magnitude of the problem is staggering as well. Thirty-seven percent of all high school freshmen in the Dallas Independent School District—more than 5,000 students—are expected to drop out this year. In April, a study by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center ranked Dallas the seventh worst among the 50 largest cities, with a 44.4 percent graduation rate in 2004. And the societal cost of dropping out goes far beyond the dumbing down of the populace. Studies reveal that chronic truants who drop out may be doomed to a lifetime of poverty and poor-paying jobs. The dropout rate is a predictor for future involvement in gang activity, drug use and daytime burglaries.

That is why applying a high-tech, one-size-fits-all Band-Aid to solve such a complex social problem seems at best insubstantial.

But Dallas County, to its credit, has taken a comprehensive approach to truancy, using the soft touch of social services to address the root causes of truant behavior, and the hard press of truancy courts to enforce the law against parent and child alike. Principals committed to this approach such as Bryan Adams' Cindy Goodsell have dramatically altered attitudes in their schools by reducing truancy and making their schools a safer place to learn. But the driving political force behind reducing truancy in Dallas County has been County Commissioner Mike Cantrell who, along with Principal Goodsell, has become a champion of the AIM program.

Although the program's local founders, Dr. Paul Pottinger and Shelton Stogner, cite Pottinger's recent study chronicling the success of their program, they were surprised to learn that the program affects more than truancy rates. "What we learned is a little bit of attention, respect and focus on these kids goes a long way," Pottinger says.

Before Aragon became one of nine Bryan Adams students to take part in this spring's pilot program, she stayed out late on weeknights and spent most weekends at a friend's house. She says depression was the cause of her truancy and spending time with friends at night became her only escape. But the AIM curfew forced her to be at home and spend more time with her mother and sister, improving her relationships with them and giving her more time to study. Aragon now says that after graduating from Bryan Adams, she hopes to attend college and then law school.

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