The Little Gadget That Boosts Attendance

Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
(CBS)
The way my parents put it to me when I was a kid: going to school was my job.

They put a roof over my head, put all the food I needed in my stomach, gave me clothes, protected me from wild animals and so forth. In return, I was supposed to do my best in every class, every year, no questions asked. For a whole host of reasons, that isn't the environment that many children grow up in around the country.

Whether it be due to peer pressure, lack of role models, absent parents, etc., there are a startling number of dropouts all around the country. Colin Powell's organization, America's Promise, produced a report recently, which painted a rather bleak picture of the dropout rate across the largest 50 school districts or zones in the country. In Dallas, which has one of the worst dropout rates in the country, one school; Bryan Adams (and no it is not named after the singer), has been trying an innovative idea blending technology and support that is producing some amazing results.

Last year a judge here enrolled some habitual truants, meaning students with not just bad but horrible attendance, into a trial program where they are required to wear a GPS device that tracks their movements to and from school. Every morning before the bell rings, truancy counselors check a computer that displays the location and speed of all the students every few minutes on a map. This way, they know if the student is making it to class, whether they are walking slowly or getting a lift. The judge also ordered a 9 p.m. curfew for these kids, which is monitored by a voice-recognition system – meaning a computer calls the home phone, and the kids have to be there to answer it. If they aren't they have a few minutes to call back and say why they didn't pick up the phone.

The first class of tracked truants wore ankle-bracelet devices, and this year the kids carried what looks like a cross between a cell phone and a garage door opener. Now I know what you're thinking, why wouldn't a truant just have a friend carry one into school? (Obviously, my middle school mischievousness isn't buried too deep!) The counselors made random checks in different classes to see whether the students are in fact there or not. The fact is the kids are present, and at amazing rates of improvement.

Last year, of all the students who wore the device, they had an average attendance rate of 97 percent. Twenty-three of the students had attendance rates of 100 percent. This year, the kids went from 40 percent to 98 percent attendance.

One study showed that if a child began skipping class in the first six weeks of their freshman year, there was a very high correlation to that student not graduating at all.

What is important to note here is that this is not just a story about a technology that is working. As the administrators say, the devices only help kids show up. Then, it is up to the school to set up an infrastructure where the kids can catch up and move up. The Attendance Improvement Program also includes parenting classes that the students attend with their parents once a week. It also includes opportunities for the kids to earn credit during weekend sessions.

Administrators describe the school a few years ago as one you'd see in any stereotypical Hollywood caricature of an inner city tough school; graffiti on the walls, little to no control in the classrooms, constant fights in the hallways and parking lots, etc. But thanks to a number of reforms including a principal, Cynthia Goodsell, who seems committed to the change, and is filling the classrooms with teachers who also seem committed, the kids are in uniforms, they're in class, they have a chance to learn, and the teachers have a chance to teach without fearing for their own safety.

Collateral Benefits
These devices are enabling change that many of the students may had already been struggling to make. So many have been too weak to resist the peer pressure of gangs, drugs, truancy but the device gives them an opportunity to walk away from that. What kind of street gang wants to hang out with a member who can be tracked to within a few feet of his/her location? The student we profiled is harnessing his aggression in a boxing ring now, he's focused, in class and now a B student, compared to last year when he basically missed out on the bulk of the school year by hanging out with friends and "smokin.'"

He says it has also changed his relationship with his family. The fact that he's home now at 9 p.m. isn't a drag anymore. They're proud of his turnaround and are helping him stay on the right track. For him the program has been breaking a negative cycle of bad habits, and more importantly, is creating new ones.

Another individual whom we profiled was a third-generation gang leader who was absent most of the past year. He now has near perfect attendance, and this year is the first man on his father's side to graduate high school. He has two kids of his own already, and a girlfriend to support. The accountability that the device initially forced out of him gave him a sense of responsibility that he carried over into other parts of his life. What I found most fascinating about him was that he helped suggest the idea of a uniform to the school. Coming from a gang, he knew the importance of colors, and as is Principal Goodsell's joke now, from 7 a.m. to 4 pm., the kids are all part of her gang now – a gang that stays in school.

Sometimes you can see the string section practicing in a hallway because the band is already in the music room for that period. But they are trying, like the rest of the school is to keep from being a cliché statistic. This pilot program was funded partly by donors who believed, and were interested in trying something new. The future of the program is now in the Dallas school district budget.
  • Hari Sreenivasan

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