The automated phone calls came almost nightly, just after 6:30 p.m., each another heartbreaking alert that her son had skipped school again.
For Margaret Valdez, those calls from Albuquerque Public Schools were constant reminders that all her cajoling and demanding, all the consequences and counseling and everything else she could think of, had failed to keep her 15-year-old son on the right path and in the required classroom.
Not that she needed reminding. What she needed was help.
“It’s not bad parenting,” said Valdez, a single mother. “When they’re at this age, they can be so rebellious. You can talk to them until you’re blue in the face. You can’t physically drag them to school – that’s abuse. You can’t kick them out – that’s abandonment.”
Tough love, she found, was tough to enforce without a system to back her up.
Which is why she said she was stunned to read a recent article in the Journal (“Thousands of children quit APS every year,” August 6) about APS’ continued efforts to curb truancy and dropouts by working with families to uncover why children refuse to go to school.
Valdez said she would have welcomed help from the school – from almost anybody.
APS spokesman Rigo Chavez said there is no way of knowing what, if any, assistance was provided to Valdez and her son, but that the parent bears the major responsibility for seeking help for the child.
Last year, Valdez’s son was a freshman at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School but skipped more school than he attended.
“He attended maybe five times from August through December,” she said.
She could get him to school, but then he’d disappear, sometimes for as long as two weeks. Valdez said she called the school, called her son’s friends to track him down. She filed runaway reports with Albuquerque police. She asked police to help her force her son back in school and back home.
“They didn’t seem to want to be bothered,” she said of the two officers who went to her home. “They didn’t speak to my son. They told me that they couldn’t hold his hand and escort him to school.”
Last December, she pulled her son from Atrisco Heritage and enrolled him in a charter high school. He promptly missed 10 days. After winter break, he refused to go at all. From January to May, her son missed 52 days.
“We would argue,” she said. “He turned ugly toward me. He went a month without speaking to me. It was just hard.”
Valdez said she put her son in counseling. She couldn’t take away privileges like cellphones and cars because he had none to begin with. If she grounded him, he ran.
A friend suggested she try asking a juvenile probation officer to speak with her son. The plan, she said, backfired.
“Basically, my son was informed that there are no consequences for his un-attendance at school,” she said. “But there are for me.”
Under state truancy law, parents can face a fine up to $500 and jail for up to 30 days if their child is truant. APS officials said that such punishments are used only as last resorts. The District Attorney’s Office in Bernalillo County also notes that no one has been prosecuted for truancy since 2009.
All APS and DA’s Office officials say it is better to deal with truancy proactively, with solutions and support.
But parents like Valdez say it’s still too easy for wayward high school students to slip through the cracks, too hard for hardworking parents to access solutions and support.
Last spring, the Journal reported that APS was optimistic about a pilot program (“Truancy Program Successful,” March 28) that involved working with habitually truant students from 17 schools and their families to keep the students in school.
But in that same article, APS officials noted that the success was only at the elementary school level and that truancy at the middle and high school levels had actually increased.
This year, the project will be implemented in 24 schools and include a team of eight social workers, said Kristine Meurer, executive director of APS Student, Family and Community Supports division.
But maybe Valdez has finally found her own solution.
Valdez wrote a letter to the Journal about her son a week before the school year started. Now, two weeks into the fall term, Valdez has promising news: Her son is back in school and not ditching.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” she said. “But it’s wonderful.”
Valdez said she isn’t sure what finally worked. Maybe he was bored with doing nothing. Maybe something clicked for him at school. Maybe the counseling has kicked in. Maybe it’s the little rewards she scrounges together for his perfect attendance – a basketball pump, a burger from Sonic.
Or maybe it’s because she has never given up on him when others seemingly did.
And now, maybe, he knows that.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.