LAS CRUCES – Rosa Cipriano missed so many days her freshman year of high school that there was almost no chance she would graduate.
So, she opted to attend “truancy school” in a small classroom tucked among the Doña Ana County district attorney’s offices.
New Mexico’s second-largest city is taking a holistic approach to combatting a problem that plagues many communities around the state, including Albuquerque: habitual truancy among high-schoolers. At best, multiple missed school days can leave students unable to graduate. At worst, truancy can represent a gateway to the criminal justice system, experts say.
The Las Cruces Public School District has drastically expanded programs that give students flexible options to finish their education. Those include accelerated credit programs, expanding night school to all high schools, staffing an attendance support services office and – for those students who have fallen too far behind, or who have tangled with the law – truancy school.
“The schools have had a pretty strong response since 2012,” said Rick Chavez, a facilitator with the school district’s attendance support services unit, created that year. “More systems have become involved and gotten interested in truancy. The DA’s Office in recent years is trying to work with us and find solutions.”
Albuquerque Public Schools undertook its own pilot program this year to curb high levels of truancy, an effort in which school officials meet with habitually truant students and create plans with their families to overcome the root causes of their absences.
In New Mexico, a habitually truant student is one who has accumulated 10 or more unexcused absences in a school year. The state’s “Compulsory Attendance” law requires all children between the ages of 5 and 18 to be engaged in some educational setting.
At truancy school in Las Cruces, known formally as the Tier Two Truancy Program since its founding in 2008, 17-year-old Cipriano and four other teenage classmates study to take the GED. Some land here upon the recommendation of someone like Chavez; others are sent by a probation officer.
The idea driving the truancy school is to try to work with students “before they are part of our (justice) system,” said Dan Rosales, director of special programs with the Doña Ana County District Attorney’s Office.
The classroom hosts between five and 10 students at any time. Some will stay for a year or more, while others may finish in a semester, said truancy specialist Karina Hermosillo, who teaches the 9 a.m.-to-noon program.
“They work at their own pace,” she said. “That helps them stay motivated.”
Given that students enrolled in truancy school are often too far behind to catch up with their high school classmates, the program focuses on the GED. Chavez underscores the importance of helping a truant student earn a diploma or GED within a semester of their cohorts graduating high school. After that, their chances of finishing drop dramatically, he said.
At truancy school, Hermosillo rounds out her instruction by helping students hone their résumés and apply for part-time jobs. When it comes time to graduate, she helps them explore their options: the military, community college, technical school or university.
Cipriano chalks up her former truancy to “hanging around with the wrong people.”
“Now I regret it,” she said. “I could have been almost done with high school.”
Parents may be held accountable under the law for their child’s truancy. But Rosales said the office rarely prosecutes parents for a high-schooler’s habitual absences. Too often, parents send their kids to school and are unaware the child is skipping.
“It’s one thing on paper,” he said. “But it’s hard for prosecutors to go in and blame the parent.”
Chavez said the attendance support services unit tries to get to the root of the absence problem – homelessness, a family divorce, responsibilities at home – before recommending a solution, whether night school or truancy school, or services inside or outside the district. For students with serious problems at home, changing classrooms isn’t enough.
As for whether the school district’s multifaceted approach is working, it may be too soon to tell. The number of habitually truant high school students rose between the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 school years, from 962, or 14 percent of students enrolled, to 1,702, or 24 percent of students enrolled.
Las Cruces Public Schools spokeswoman Jo Galvan noted that a student may be counted more than once in the statistics if truancy is resolved and then begins again.
Chavez said those numbers may not paint a full picture. He cites an example: The school district may manage to keep a kid from dropping out but will absorb his high level of absences as a result.
“These kids have needs, a lot of needs,” he said. “We’re working with them in a holistic manner to address some of the social issues they have been dealing with.”