Seven years ago, South Atlanta High School student Faydren Battle had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Problems at home and problems with her boyfriend kept her on edge and out of school. She says her life turned around when truancy charges landed her in court and introduced her to the Truancy Intervention Project, co-founded by former Fulton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Glenda Hatchett and Terry Walsh, then President of the Atlanta Bar Association. The non-profit works closely with children who skip school (and their families) to address the underlying problems that keep them out of the classroom. Battle, now 25, is one of thousands of success stories the organization has celebrated over its 19-year history. With the program's help she graduated from high school and eventually college too. For the past two years, Battle has been paying it forward through service on the TIP Board of Directors. As the organization kicks off its first-ever statewide conference in Atlanta this week, Battle shares her story with JJIE’s Chandra Thomas.
How’d you get involved in the Truancy Intervention Project?
In high school I became truant and eventually I was brought up on truancy charges. That’s how I got connected with the program. Caren Cloud was assigned as my attorney and they set me up with a mentor, Denise de la Rue. Caren handled the legal aspects of the case and Denise was assigned as my guardian ad litem. Because I was a minor I needed a guardian to be a part of the court proceedings.
Why were you ditching school?
Mostly regular growing up and adolescent problems. I was having problems with my boyfriend at the time. I was having problems with the kids in my high school. My mother is hearing-impaired so that came with its own set of problems. I don’t know many people with a hearing-impaired parent. I was trying to navigate all of that, but I didn’t have the skill set to deal with everything that was going on with me. My response was to retreat from everyday life and that included school. I wasn’t out doing anything exciting, I was basically just staying at home. My mother had a full time job so she thought I was in school. I was at home sleeping, watching TV; just basically not at school. I wasn’t doing anything exciting. The point was just not being at school. I had so many part time jobs at that time that I would quit. When life got stressful I just checked out from reality.
What was your initial reaction to being placed in TIP?
That’s when I really began to take my situation seriously. School was not really challenging to me and before the program I didn’t really feel like missing it was a big deal. The reality did not hit me until I faced charges. I was like “wow, I’m actually in court.” That’s when it really hit me. I didn’t know much about the project as a whole so I was curious about it. I was wondering what was going to happen once I got into it. They (Cloud and de la Rue) were easy to talk to and seemed nice and genuinely concerned. That made the process much easier.
What was your experience like with your mentor?
We would talk, go out to eat. As crazy as it may sound, I had never been to Lenox (Square) Mall before. She took me there for the first time. She gave me a lot of good advice. There were other kids in the program. We started a book club and I ended up winning the Hank Aaron Award, which is given to the student with the most improved attendance. So [the program] really did really work for me.
How did TIP change your life?
Even with my truancy, I had always been able to maintain a pretty good GPA. I had never dipped below a 3.0, but through the program my attendance improved dramatically. I went from missing maybe three days a week to maybe twice a month at most. I just started getting more involved in school. I joined the debate team and just started living my life. I began hanging out with friends and doing regular teenage stuff. Not attending school was basically me just tuning out of life.
Why do you think the TIP is effective?
As a teenager you don’t know a lot of things. It helps to have a mentor to provide you with an outside perspective and a different piece of advice. My mother was able to raise three children all while being hearing-impaired. I think that she really did the best she could with the tools that she had. I would never take that away from her or the rest of my family, but it helped a lot to have another person to talk to. As a teen you can’t always go to your parents. There is no prototype of a truant. There are a lot of misconceptions out there that the kids who skip school are stupid, bad, or can’t handle the work. That’s not always the case; there’s a range of reasons. This program works to address that wide range of issues that keep kids out of school. They provide kids with a variety of resources.
Why do you think truancy is such an important issue?
The fact that you’re missing school is a symptom of a larger problem. It flows into every area of life. If you can’t be consistent in life and stick to something, that problem is going to stick with you in the future. You will have problems with work and in other areas of life. Truancy needs to be nipped in the bud before it becomes a bigger problem. That’s what the Truancy Intervention Project does. With their help I was able to attend college and keep on going on with life – not tuning out of reality.
What have you done since graduation?
I enrolled in Georgia State University in 2003 and graduated with a degree in English in 2008. Now I work as an English instructor with the Upward Bound program.
Do you share your story with your current students?
Upward Bound is a voluntary program that students sign up for in addition to their course work at school. These students generally are committed to going to school so we don’t really deal with truancy. Of course they are still teenagers and they still have their problems. I try to incorporate my experience into the classroom. For example, they were reading The Great Gatsby and they found it hard to read and felt like it did not relate to their lives, although the themes are universal. So I kind of broke down to them [what happened in] my life from 2003 until now. They were just blown away at all the things I had been through. I told them if I can go through all that you can certainly read some pages in a book. They don’t realize how easy that they have it.
I just try to talk to them about reality.
How’d you get involved with the TIP board?
[Executive Director] Jessica Pennington approached me about it. She said they wanted a unique perspective on the board and they thought that I would be an ideal candidate for that. Basically now I attend meetings and offer my input. Lately we’ve been focusing a lot on getting more volunteers for the program. I suggested to the board that we try to target college education majors or those studying social work. The program typically targets mostly law students and those in the legal field. I felt like students studying education and social work would have the passion to work with the program and may have more time to volunteer. I’m convinced that they will see the impact that we’re trying to make and this would be a great opportunity for them to get their feet wet.
This week TIP hosts its first statewide conference. What should attendees expect?
I’m speaking at the Thursday session called “Why Don’t They Go To School?” I just want clear up the many myths out there. I want people to know that basically there’s a range of reasons why kids don’t go to school. I want to let people know there are good kids out there who can get back to school and learn; don’t paint them with a single brush stroke. We’re going to have a diverse group of speakers and attendees – everything from the CEO of Community in Schools to people who work with the court system. We’ll be presenting a variety of perspectives and there will be a lot of different perspectives to work with.
What do you ultimately hope to achieve with your TIP involvement?
I know it sounds scripted, but I think if we can help one kid get back in school, get back in life and get back on track, we’ve done our job. This is why I chose to get into education. It’s the only way to bridge the socio-economic gap. You can come from anywhere and with education you can go anywhere. Education is the way to live your dreams.
"Charting the Course: Reinvesting in and Reengaging Georgia’s Youth - A Delinquency and Truancy Intervention Conference" is Oct. 27-29 at the Hilton Atlanta/Marietta Hotel & Conference Center. __________________________
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta, Essence and People magazines and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.