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Tough on Truants

Students skipping school in Boston quickly find themselves back in class thanks to new technology.

Each week, Boston Public Schools' truancy officer John Fencer scouts out students playing hooky. Until recently, Fencer's companion on these missions was a five-pound, five-inch thick book filled with more than 60,000 names and addresses of children in the district.

When he did track down a student hanging out on a street corner or elsewhere, Fencer would turn to the book, leafing through pages to locate the student's name, address, phone number and class assignment. It often took him 15 to 20 minutes to find information he needed. On windy days, it took longer.

"Students can't learn
if they're not in class."
-Thomas W. Payzant, superintendent

And often, the information was out of date. Or a student would lie about his name, leaving Fencer with little alternative but to move on to the next student he found.

Since last April, Fencer and his fellow officers have had the power to find information on a truant in a matter of seconds. The district is using a new wireless technology that allows up-to-the-minute access to every student record from Boston's 130 schools. The team of seven officers use wireless phones networked with software that taps into a database filled with each student's information, including name, parents' phone numbers, school assignments and class schedules. The software was provided by AirClic, which has partnered with Nextel to provide the system free to Boston Public Schools.


"The role of the application developed by AirClic was a huge asset for our truancy team,'' says Phil Jackson, the district's director of alternative education. "In the past, truancy officers had to carry reams of paper for 65,000 students. It was not only cumbersome, but inefficient because of the out-of-date information. Truancy officers now only carry small mobile phones to get instant access to information. It upgrades the process tremendously."

Attendance percentages have already shown improvement from last school year to this one-rising from 94.8 to 95.1 at the elementary level, 91.5 to 92.7 at the middle school level and 86.7 to 88.3 at the high school level, Jackson says. Daily absences at the high school level used to run up to 2,400 a day out of a total of 18,500 students. Increasing the attendance by two percentage points means hundreds more students are coming to school each day, he points out.

The new technology has added to Boston's 1998 initiative aimed at reaching Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant's daily district attendance goal of 93.3 percent. Under the initiative, students who have more than 12 unexcused absences are not promoted to the next grade level.

"This technology has made a historically difficult process very easy,'' Payzant says. "We are thankful to have the opportunity to use this tool as part of our efforts to make sure kids are coming to school, because they can't learn if they're not in class."

Because of budget cuts, the district had to reduce its truancy team from nine officers to seven this year. But the wireless technology has helped the smaller team keep up with scheduled sweeps. "Without the other two officers, it's a blessing we have the phones,'' Jackson says. "We still have a lot of territory to cover. The technology has helped us tremendously in not falling too far behind."

In addition to conducting sweeps throughout the city, truant officers are alerted by teachers and administrators about any specific students who have missed five or more days of school. An officer then goes to the student's home to talk with parents and try to track down the student.

Students found by the truancy team can be sent to court if they fail to return to school. Often, Boston police officers will accompany truancy officers on their sweeps.

The wireless technology allows the truant officers to find out whether a student has violated probation, Fencer says. If a student found on the street gives a phony name, the truant officer can discover the lie within seconds and then pump the student for more accurate information.

"The students are kind of amazed. Before, they could kind of bamboozle you, give you false information and then with the books, you'd be flipping back and forth for information," Fencer remembers. "Now the students, who are used to using technology themselves, see us using the phones, and they say, 'Uh oh, time to give it all up.' "


The system couples Nextel's i85s Java-enabled phone with AirClic's Mobile Information Platform. Truant officers use their cellular phones to dial into the district's mainframe to access the student information database. The database is updated daily to keep track of students who may have moved, or who have new phone numbers or new legal guardians. Data access is protected through multiple passwords and each cell phone's electronic signature, says AirClic CEO Philip Riese.

Truancy officers received training by Nextel and AirClic before using the phones in the field. The only major glitch in the system is when an officer is in an area of the city that doesn't pick up a wireless signal and the phone won't work, Fencer says, adding that it doesn't happen often. When it does, he reverts back to the five-pound book that he still brings with him for emergencies.

Boston got quite a deal when it received the wireless technology for free; the system could cost a district its size $10,000 or more, depending on the number of truancy officers and whether the district already has Nextel phones, says Riese. The company charges $25 month per wireless phone for the service, and $1,000 to $10,000 to customize the software.

The district is, however, spending $100 to $200 per phone to attach bar code readers allowing truant officers to read student identification cards, which all students are expected to carry by the end of this school year. When a student is found playing hooky, the officer can swipe the card past the bar code reader and access the students' record instead of having to call it up through the mainframe database.

Feldman says at least five Boston schools have already issued bar coded ID cards, which are created in-house, to students. Parents and teachers have reacted favorably, seeing this and other truancy prevention efforts as a safety issue, he adds. "Most parents would want us to be accountable for that child coming, going and staying in school. At the end of the day you want to feel sure you've done your best to ensure safety and give students access to education.''

In the future, students may be using ID cards to "punch in'' when they get on a bus or get to school. This way, if they come in the front door and quickly exit out the back door, or if they fail to show up in a class later on, truant officers will know.

While technology may make it easier for school officials to track students, it doesn't solve the truancy problem. Feldman, who formerly served as director of the district's Counseling and Intervention Center, acknowledges that students skip classes for social, economic and emotional reasons. "The social issues could be around self concept. Their clothing may not be up to speed. Or they feel they can't compete academically,'' he says.

School districts need to address the emotional and family issues facing students who are frequently skipping classes to help solve chronic truancy problems. "The main thing," Feldman says, "is to get them in the doors to begin the process."

Fran Silverman,, is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.