Mock Court Gets Truant Students Back in the Classroom

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Gary Gately/JJIE

Retired Baltimore City Juvenile Court Master Joyce T. Mitchell serves as a judge for the Truancy Court Program.

Gary Gately / JJIE

Retired Baltimore City Juvenile Court Master Joyce T. Mitchell serves as a judge for the Truancy Court Program.

BALTIMORE — At 7:30 on a Wednesday morning, truancy court is in session in a basement room at City Springs Elementary-Middle School.

The judge, retired Baltimore City Juvenile Court Master Joyce T. Mitchell, ponders reasons a steady parade of students give for their truancy or tardiness.

The litany of woes she has heard makes the cinematic capers of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” seem like lighthearted larks.

Mitchell sits across from students who appear one by one as part of the Truancy Court Program, run by the Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

But unlike judges in many truancy courts across the country, she is not here to impose sentences on anyone for students’ truancy.

To the contrary, the Truancy Court Program (TCP), now operating in seven schools in the 85,000-student, 188-school Baltimore City school district, is all about helping students overcome obstacles with the aim of reducing chronic truancy.

Doing so can be a daunting challenge in the city: Often-nomadic homeless students struggle to get across town to the school they attended before becoming homeless, and their parents don’t know the school system is required to provide them transportation. Teenage girls juggle taking care of their babies and attending school — or not attending school, as the case may be.

Some students have witnessed violence — one watched his father shoot his mother, who ended up in a wheelchair, while the father went to prison — and other students have parents who abuse drugs. Fear of walking through violent neighborhoods or being bullied at school keeps some students at home, while others fall so far behind in school they fear they won’t catch up.

Says Barbara A. Babb, an associate law professor at UB Law who founded CFCC in 2000 and serves as its director: “The problems that are keeping kids home from school today are not that the kid doesn’t want to go to school and is playing hooky. They’re very, very deep-seated.”

To unravel them and get to the root causes of truancy, the judges and masters, all of whom volunteer, work with full-time TCP staff and UB law school volunteers. Maryland’s first lady, Baltimore City District Court Judge Catherine Curran O’Malley, the wife of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, has served as a TCP judge every 10-week session since the program began in 2005.

(TCP also operates in three schools in Montgomery County, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C.)

At City Springs, a TCP coordinator, an attorney, a social worker, a UB law school volunteer and a mentor sit at tables in the school’s basement Counseling Center. Each of TCP’s Baltimore schools also has three or four volunteer tutors, who work with the city school students, and each TCP team has representatives from schools who can include administrators, counselors and social workers who assist with the program.

‘I know that you’re going to college’

During the ninth of 10 weekly sessions at City Springs, Mitchell dispenses advice and gently nudges the students to think about their futures, asking all of them what they’ll do when they graduate from college.

“College?” one startled girl asks.

“Yes, college,” Mitchell replies. “When you come in here, I know that you’re going to college.”

Mackalya, an eighth-grader, tells the judge she aspires to become a veterinarian. (Last names of students have been withheld to protect their privacy.)

The judge praises Mackalya’s mother, who sits next to her daughter.

“You are a wonderful mother,” Mitchell says. “You have come to each and every session. So we all know that you are committed. We know that you love your daughter. When I was last here, you and her had made great improvement in everything.”

Indeed, Mackalya and her mother, Aquanetta, a high school dropout, have come a long way.

The girl, who suffers from chronic asthma, also had battled depression and low self-esteem, Mitchell says. And she and her mother had complained teachers and others at City Springs at first did not believe the girl’s illness prevented her from getting to school and refused to provide makeup work.

With intervention from the TCP team, Mackalya began receiving tutoring at home on days when her asthma prevented her from coming to school through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and teachers provided makeup work and extra help when she needed it.

Mitchell notes Mackalya has been accepted into Western High School, one of Baltimore’s top public schools.

“You know that says a whole lot about you,” Mitchell says. “You have the ability to do the work.”

Aquanettta commends the TCP team.

“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think anything would have been accomplished because they helped the process of the teachers understanding that this is a big deal,” she said in an interview. “This is not something that I’m just telling them. It’s not a game or a joke. She has a chronic illness, and her mother is doing the right steps … to try to get her daughter to pass to the next grade.”

Rewarding students’ attendance, performance

To graduate from TCP, students must reduce truancies and late arrivals by at least 65 percent and improve academic performance and behavior. Babb says, typically, seven in 10 students graduate and then receive gifts that have included basketballs, footballs, makeup kits, art sets, lava lamps and watches. Each graduate and a guest are invited to attend a ceremony at Government House, the governor’s residence in Annapolis, where they receive a certificate and have their photos taken with the first lady.

Students who don’t graduate from TCP are invited to return for another 10-week session.

Babb says the TCP approach makes a lot more sense than suspending or expelling students for truancy and thus contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

“It just doesn’t make any sense for kids who are missing school to punish them in a way that causes them to miss more school,” she says.

“Essentially, what all of the suspensions and expulsions are creating … is kids who are no longer in school and they’re then committing either juvenile or adult crimes and then finding themselves in prison.”

Indeed, TCP points to accumulating research showing truancy is an early warning sign not only for crime but also teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, dropping out of school and unemployment.

Students are referred to TCP by their schools, and this school year, the program served 250 students in Baltimore City and 75 in Montgomery County. Since it started in 2005, TCP has served more than 2,000 students.

TCP and school system officials choose participating schools based on schools’ applications, and the schools choose students they think would benefit most from the program. Students’ and parents’ participation in TCP is voluntary.

Factors taken into account in selecting schools include the attendance rate, a school’s commitment to TCP, and whether it has a coordinator to keep tabs on student records and a dedicated space for weekly sessions.

Many more schools apply than can be accepted into the program. In Baltimore, Babb says, about  30 schools may apply for the seven spots.

The program is funded by government and foundation grants and contracts and costs about $25,000 to $30,000 per school each school year.

Mitchell, for one, hopes to see TCP grow, which would depend on additional funding.

“I love this program. I think it’s underutilized. I really think it should be expanded,” she said in an interview. “You can’t expect [truant] children to turn it around unless there’s someone to help the children.”

To that end, along with the weekly sessions and tutoring, students in TCP also receive group and one-on-one mentoring and some attend after-school enrichment programs. Parents and teachers attend workshops aimed at helping them reduce truancy.

In a “Kids and Cameras” class, students take photos with cameras provided by TCP and at the end of the class, prepare an exhibit for invited guests where they talk about the photos. At a “Kids in Theater” program, a playwright helps children write plays that they then perform before an audience. As part of a “Kids in the Arts” program, current and former TCP students took on a project to lobby city officials to rebuild a city playground that had been destroyed by arson.

Notably, TCP students in the out-of-school programs improved their attendance more than those who participated in TCP but not the programs, Babb says.

Now, he tackles character-building

One unlikely mentor for TCP students is former Baltimore Colts defensive end and Morgan State University football coach Anthony Green.

Green, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Deanna Camille Green, in 2006 in a freak electrocution accident at a Baltimore park, says he teaches TCP character-building classes in her memory. He often mentions Deanna, who had been a superb lyric soprano singer, during the character-building classes.

“I talk about how she had her goals and she had her dreams,” he says. “I do share a lot of that with them.”

In the classes, he says, “A lot of it’s coaching them, working with them, getting the best out of them, challenging them, pushing them to a limit.”

The most important lesson?

“I try to get them to love themselves,” Green says. “You’ve got to love yourself first. You have to love yourself to the point where you feel that you’re not going to let yourself down and do what you need to do. It comes down to you as an individual respecting yourself.”

Jasmine, a 15-year-old eighth-grader who graduated from TCP last fall, says it made all the difference.

“It was life-changing because they [TCP team members] not only helped me with my attendance, they talked to me about why I need to be in school and why it’s very important,” she says.

Jasmine says education will help her move away from the violence-plagued neighborhood where she now lives. “You need to learn so you can get into a better neighborhood, better community,” she says.

Someday, Jasmine says, she hopes to become an OB-GYN physician.

Donte, a seventh-grader who is now in TCP, also says the program has impressed upon him the importance of education for his future.

“When I get older, I’m going to have to take this education with me because if I don’t, then I’m going to get lost and then I’m going to end up going on the wrong path, and that wrong path is going to lead me into jail or somewhere, not a good place,” says Donte, whose little brother, Corey, a third-grader, is also in TCP.

Over the years, program staff also have encountered children who miss school because they babysit younger siblings, care for sick parents or don’t receive needed special education services because of the lack of an individualized education program (IEP).

For some high school students, just getting to school can be an hour-long ordeal riding on three public transit buses.

The principal’s clean clothes cache

Even a lack of clean clothes keeps some students from attending school: At City Springs, Principal Rhonda L. Richetta says she keeps new khaki pants and school uniform shirts on hand.

“I said to our children, ‘Not having clean clothes should not be an issue for you not coming to school. … We’ll put you in brand-new pants that nobody else has ever worn, brand new uniform shirt and then you can go to class.’”

Other TCP truancy cases are less complicated: Sometimes, the solution’s as simple as providing sleepy-headed students a wakeup call in the form of a cheap alarm clock.

“We’ve gone out and bought every alarm clock at the dollar store to give away to kids and we’ve taught them how to use them,” Richetta says. “And in a lot of the cases, once we’ve done that, they start coming to school.”

Another TCP team member, staff attorney Katie Davis, advises parents and connects them with legal aid services on a broad range of issues, from formally requesting an IEP from a school to helping devise custody agreements and even compelling one landlord to rid a family’s home of bedbugs.

“If you’re covered with bedbugs, you may be less inclined to come to school,” Davis says wryly.

TCP social worker Eliseba Osore often helps parents, many of whom never finished high school, navigate a school’s bureaucracy.

“We see a lot of cases of parents who don’t necessarily know exactly who they should be talking to about their child’s education,” Osore says. “And a lot of times, families view school as the enemy and maybe it’s because they don’t trust in any of the adults there or know exactly who to direct their questions to.

“They’re like, ‘truancy court’ — it sounds kind of heavy, especially with the word ‘court’ in it — and they come in with kind of their guards up sometimes. But once they sit down and really see that this is a supportive environment and that we want to do what we can to get resources to them and their kids, it becomes a really good team, and parents are in general the best advocates for their kids.”

TCP’s innovative, holistic approach earns plaudits well beyond Baltimore.

Phyllis Jordan, spokeswoman for Attendance Works, a national nonprofit based in San Francisco, says in a telephone interview that chronic absenteeism — missing 10 percent of more of a school year — indicates serious problems in a child’s life.

“Kids missing that much school is like the check-engine light going on in your car: It means you need to find out what is wrong and get it fixed. Low-income kids need school the most but are getting it the least,” she says, citing data on absenteeism, poverty, and other factors.

Speaking of TCP, Jordan says, “It’s definitely the approach we endorse — looking at root causes, mentoring the kids, using community partners.”

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