(MCT) — Moving from Chicago's South Side to a public housing development in this city of 32,000 was a major culture shock for Keona Lee.
For one thing, she never expected to find a truancy officer at her door, asking why her second-grade daughter had missed one day of school.
"In Chicago they don't do that," said the single mother, who has lived in Galesburg for five years. "In Chicago they don't care. Your second-grader isn't coming to school, they don't come to the house to see what's going on. That's one kid they don't have to worry about."
While Lee struggled to get the willful 7-year-old to school as required by Illinois law, the truancy officer returned several more times, then issued Lee a $75 ticket.
The intervention exasperated Lee, but she admits that it worked.
"I made sure she got to school every day since then," said Lee, whose daughter is now in third grade.
While Chicago has all but abandoned anti-truancy programs for elementary students, districts across Illinois — from Lake, Will and McHenry counties to Murphysboro, in southern Illinois, and Galesburg, near the Iowa border — are using an array of tools to get students back in school.
Outreach workers who make home visits and provide services can help reduce truancy, records and interviews show. With rising rates of child poverty and homelessness contributing to the problem, sometimes the fix is as simple as an alarm clock or winter boots.
Other cases can be dauntingly complex. Some children are kept out of school to serve as surrogate caretakers for younger siblings. Others come from families roiled by domestic violence, mental illness or homelessness, where the adults lack the will or wherewithal to get their kids to class.
For problems the outreach workers can't solve, regional school authorities convene truancy hearings with the student and his or her family to hammer out attendance strategies and contracts.
And if need be, indifferent parents can be held accountable through tickets like the one issued to Lee — or, in the most extreme cases, through misdemeanor charges against the parents, or juvenile court actions that allow judges to order supportive services or impose sanctions.
Local authorities go to these lengths because absences from school in the earliest grades can have a devastating effect on children, their families and the community, as well as draining millions of dollars from school districts whose state and federal funding is keyed to attendance rates, government records and Tribune interviews show.
In Chicago alone, nearly 13 percent of the city's roughly 250,000 students in grades K-8 missed four weeks or more of school in 2010-11, while administrators could not say whether about 1,600 others had transferred to other districts or simply vanished, a Tribune investigation found.
But Chicago Public Schools eliminated its truancy outreach officers two decades ago amid budget woes and turnover among top officials. The district also has never enforced school policies that remain on the books, such as linking parents' public housing leases and welfare assistance to their children's school attendance, or taking parents to court.
Top Chicago school officials say fines and court sanctions don't reduce truancy and only worsen the lives of impoverished families. "Our goal should be helping people by lifting them up," said Jadine Chou, chief safety and security officer for CPS.
Authorities in other districts believe tough measures do help families, and they want more options to hold parents accountable.
"We believe it is a form of abuse to just not get the youngest children to school. That is irresponsible," said Cathy Elliott, an assistant principal and truancy officer in Alton, near St. Louis, where authorities use municipal tickets and court interventions and fines to fight truancy.
Making home visits
On first blush, you might not expect parallels between inner-city Chicago and Galesburg, a town surrounded by farms. It is where poet Carl Sandburg slept on a mattress of corn husks as he was raised by immigrant parents and where Ronald Reagan attended first grade at the Silas Willard School.
But life here has gotten tougher as huge factories closed and the methamphetamine trade spread like a prairie fire through counties across Illinois. The overall percentage of low-income students in Galesburg rose from 54 percent in 2009 to 62 percent two years later.
Galesburg schools also absorbed an influx of former Chicago families like Lee's, which was among the thousands displaced when Chicago's massive CHA high-rises were razed.
Like Chicago's schools, the Galesburg district has been plunged into financial crisis and is facing layoffs and a massive budget hole. "We are in extremely dire straits," said Jason Spring, the school district's alternatives program coordinator.
Yet Galesburg officials have vowed to maintain their 2-year-old elementary school anti-truancy push. They credit it with reducing the number of chronic truants in kindergarten through eighth grade from 74 in 2009 to 16 in 2011. Those are students with nine or more unexcused absences.
During those years, the overall attendance rate increased for every one of the town's eight primary and middle schools — and for the district as a whole. Those attendance rates continue to climb this year, according to preliminary figures provided to the Tribune by district officials.
Galesburg District 205 Assistant Superintendent Guy Cahill said the district's anti-truancy program has paid for itself by bringing in $234,000 in additional state funding that is tied to attendance.
On their frequent home visits to locate truant kids, Galesburg outreach workers have walked in on meth houses; one likened the drug's smell to hitting "a wall of ammonia and urine." They scan the police blotter for dope busts and other crimes to spot families that will likely not get their kids to school the next day.
And they trade stories of being threatened by pit bulls, being jumped by pet squirrels and encountering parents getting buzzed first thing in the morning.
"I think I've seen most of Galesburg naked," said outreach worker Lisa Zimmerman, an 11-year veteran who has lived in low-income housing as a single mother of two and brings an unsentimental, results-oriented attitude to a job she loves.
"I've had families that frustrated me, but there's no giving up. Bottom line: I don't care if you like me, this is about the kid."
Zimmerman works out of Steele Elementary School in a cramped office lined with stuffed animals and other toys she uses to put kids at ease. By 9 a.m. one recent day, she had compiled a list of a dozen youngsters who hadn't shown up at school.
She ticked through the names. "This boy saw his dad get shot. This one is living with grandma. This one's family lost their home. Every kid has their story," she said.
One fourth-grader on her list missed a total of two months last year. Zimmerman telephoned his house, grabbed her keys and quickly recounted the reasons behind the boy's chronic truancy as she strode to her car: The child and his mother were living in a shelter, then they moved in with relatives. But nobody is getting along or ensuring the child gets to school.
Zimmerman drove past low-rise housing developments and grimy trailers with extension cords running to the homes next door. When she pulled up to a sagging wood-frame home, a chatty, bespectacled boy was waiting on the front lawn.
As he scrambled into Zimmerman's car, the outreach worker questioned his mother about how she would get him to school the next day, and the day after that.
On the drive to Steele, the youngster was elated. "School is my favorite thing," he told the truancy officer.
As he bounded into the building in an oversized Scooby Doo T-shirt, Zimmerman said she'll make a drive like that when she has to, but she refuses to be a taxi service and won't hesitate to ticket the parents of chronic truants or send them to court.
"I am not looking to be politically correct or be your friend," Zimmerman said. "I would like your kid to see that there is another way to live."
The debate over whether or how to hold parents accountable for truancy in the earliest grades has spread across the country and divided communities.
In recent months, for example, the Los Angeles School Police Department says it has dramatically reduced the number of citations issued to truant students and instead is referring the youth to counseling and other services.
But about 25 miles south in Long Beach, the city prosecutor last year announced that he would begin hauling the parents of chronically truant students in grades K-8 into court. In cases where that happened, the youths' average number of unexcused absences dropped by half, city officials say, even though none of the cases progressed beyond a pre-court conference.
"When parents hear they could be prosecuted for their kids missing school, they take school attendance more seriously. My program is just one additional tool in the toolbox," said Long Beach prosecutor Douglas Haubert.
Several national experts on crime and education told the Tribune that they knew of no authoritative studies analyzing whether taking parents to court and other tough measures to fight truancy in elementary school are effective.
"I lament the shortage of peer-reviewed research studies not only on official sanctions for truancy but on legal sanctions as applied to school conduct in general," said Rutgers University sociologist Paul Hirschfield.
There is a lot of impassioned advocacy on the topic, most of it arguing against punishing kids and their parents for truancy, said Arizona State University criminologist Gary Sweeten.
What's lacking are hard data and research, he said. "There's a vacuum there."
In Galesburg and other communities, the job of outreach workers is not just to retrieve truants and hold parents accountable, but to intervene before the pattern takes hold.
While Zimmerman was bringing the fourth-grade boy to Steele, first-grader Brandon Medina was three miles away at Silas Willard, sitting at a pint-size desk in the hallway with his face buried in his folded arms.
The school's outreach worker, Denise Miller, was using an empty classroom to meet with Brandon's distraught grandmother, his homeroom teacher and a school counselor.
For the first two weeks of school, Brandon had sobbed relentlessly when the big yellow bus arrived, and he resisted getting on, his grandmother Melissa Delgado told the group.
A former teacher, Miller already knew Brandon's chaotic back story: The 6-year-old's mother had left the family, had a new baby and had recently stopped visiting Brandon altogether. His dad wasn't in the picture. His grandmother had taken custody three years before, and she was overwhelmed by Brandon's noisy refusal to get on the school bus.
"I don't know what to do. I don't know what else to do," Delgado told Miller and the others.
Miller probed for whether Brandon had specific complaints about school. He said that the classroom was loud and that he had trouble making friends, Delgado said, and he claimed that his tummy hurt.
Behind it all, Delgado acknowledged, the boy was miserable because his mom no longer visited him or the family. "She doesn't come. Brandon's a little boy. He needs (her) in his life, but it doesn't happen."
Even without the turmoil in this boy's life, the step up from kindergarten to first grade can be a huge transition, Miller said. "There are a lot of changes. Let's give him some time. Let's try to start his mornings off as calm as possible."
Miller advised Delgado not to indulge Brandon — and not to get anxious or tearful herself when she says goodbye to him at the school bus. Ideally, Miller said, Brandon should have "a clean break" from home when he leaves for school.
For now, Miller suggested that they avoid the bus. If Delgado drove Brandon to school, Miller said she would be there waiting to greet him and walk him to class.
"Bring him in," she said. "I don't mind being there."
With the meeting wrapped up, Miller opened the door and Brandon hurtled in and hugged his grandmother by the waist.
"I want to go home," Brandon said desperately. Delgado fought back tears.
"Not today," she said. "You're OK."
Shoes and alarm clocks
In a cabinet behind his desk at nearby Nielson Elementary School, outreach worker Joe Pilger keeps a stash of plastic alarm clocks. He hands them out to truant kids who say they can't wake up in time for the school bus.
Pilger also shops for sneakers.
A parent recently approached Nielson's principal at an open house and confessed that her fourth-grade daughter owned only flip-flops, which are prohibited by the school's dress code.
So after Pilger saw the last kid onto the bus at the end of a recent school day, the former college football lineman and fifth-grade teacher headed for the Target store at the edge of town. He spent 10 minutes sorting through sneakers before selecting a pair of girl's size 3s for $21.69. He used the school's small "miscellaneous funds" account to make the purchase.
Last year, Galesburg outreach workers bought 76 pairs of shoes for Nielson students.
When school starts each year, Pilger said, "I'm looking down at the feet to see which shoes have dollar-size holes in them. It's alarming."
Back at Nielson, in his windowless office, Pilger keeps a carefully highlighted printout of his caseload. On a recent morning, he pored through the names with Lorenzo Pugh, director of truancy programs for the Regional Office of Education, who works with 23 schools in Galesburg and four surrounding school districts.
A former football standout like Pilger, Pugh carries a badge and can issue $75 tickets to parents or refer them to the county state's attorney for neglect proceedings if all else fails.
He and Pilger strategized, using verbal shorthand that reflected their familiarity with the names on Pilger's spreadsheet.
"That one we need to keep an eye on," Pilger said, highlighting the name of a first-grade boy whose mother had just been arrested.
Just down the list was another kid who brought a switchblade to school last year. He was suspended for 10 days on top of the 13 absences he'd already racked up.
Pilger highlighted the name of a student with 11 sick days last year, saying: "They were shady excused."
"That is where the habit starts," Pugh said.
Starting this year, Galesburg requires a doctor's note after three consecutive sick days. And last year Galesburg joined the growing number of Illinois municipalities that have passed ordinances allowing tickets and fines for truant youth who are age 13 or older and for the parents of preteen kids.
Pugh said his office has issued 50 tickets, including 30 for the families of students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Most of the time, the $75 tickets are waived after the children return to school.
Pugh called the tickets effective for families with truant children in the elementary grades. "It makes a difference. It gets the kid to school," he said. "Citations do work."
Because of the success of these anti-truancy measures, Knox County prosecutors said they have had no need in recent years to file the most serious neglect charges against parents of truant youth. Under Galesburg's school policy, those misdemeanor neglect charges can be filed against the parent when a student age 11 or younger has 20 absences, whether excused or not.
And while Galesburg is a fraction of Chicago's size, Cahill is convinced that the strategies being used here and elsewhere in Illinois could be effective in the big city.
"We think it is replicable — it starts by creating a culture that celebrates attendance and an expectation that you drive down to the classroom level."