Habitual truancy has been on New Mexico’s radar, and in its public coffers, since at least 2003, when then-Gov. Bill Richardson tried to launch a million-dollar-a-year program to combat it.
Since then, habitual truancy, defined as 10 or more unexcused absences in a year, has been a given in New Mexico.
State statistics from 2006 to 2014 show between 47,000 and 60,000 students ditch to excess regularly.
New federal numbers from the advocacy group Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center support what the state has known for years, though these groups define the problem as 15 excused and unexcused absences. They have Clovis, Hobbs, Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Rio Rancho and Roswell on the list of districts with chronic truancy.
Albuquerque Public Schools wasn’t analyzed because it submitted its data in the wrong format, yet a 2012 study from the University of New Mexico’s Center for Education Policy Research showed the district’s overall truancy rates ranged from 8.5 percent in elementary schools to 29.2 percent in high schools.
Individual APS campuses had shocking numbers – 23 percent of students were habitually truant at Atrisco Elementary School in the South Valley; 48 percent at Highland High School in the Southeast Heights. Last year, more than 13 percent of APS students – 13,976 – were classified as chronically absent.
Without question, truancy is a systemic problem school districts and the state are better at throwing money and feel-good programs at than in getting the programs to work.
In 2004 it was a state law that allows prosecution of parents but requires intervention with social services first.
In 2014, APS expanded its truancy social worker program from 12 to 23 schools. Santa Fe set up a retrieval program to attack its 25 percent truancy rate and bring back dropouts. But this effort was strongly opposed by the National Education Association teachers union because the Santa Fe Public Schools hired an outside firm to pick up the slack where the district had failed.
In 2015, Gov. Susana Martinez put $15 million into the state education budget to fight truancy, and Albuquerque Public Schools earmarked more than $2 million for a program that uses social workers to reach out to truant students and their families. Rio Rancho was auto-dialing parents after an unexcused absence, mailing letters after the third, fifth and seventh, and handing cases over to the truancy officer after absence No. 5.
This school year the governor has invested $3.8 million in 60 dropout coaches, and APS has joined a national program that pairs at-risk kids with mentors who check in when they miss school.
And it’s a sad but safe bet that because not one of those approaches makes school more attractive to students who come from non-academic-oriented families, and not one makes the long-term cost of truancy real, right now, to students and their families, they, too, will have little to no effect.
Carlsbad High stopped sending letters to local merchants asking them to require copies of student transcripts and attendance records when hiring. The New Mexico Legislature has been unable to get a proposal out of “Park” that would suspend or delay driving privileges for truants.
But imagine the positive lesson in striking a school-work-life balance those measures would provide – classes in traditional public schools that appeal to students who are likely not college bound, along with provisions that mean you can’t drive to your entry-level job unless you are also working on getting a diploma.
The Legislative Finance Committee reported in 2014 that if New Mexico could curb truancy and dropping out and get just 2,600 more students to the diploma finish line, it would save the state $700 million each graduating class.
Unless and until New Mexico moves beyond the approaches it has tried without success, unless it moves beyond blaming parents and students for New Mexico’s horrible truancy problem (who unquestionably deserve the lion’s share), and unless it puts some student/parent skin in the game, then it will repeat the last 10 years of efforts that haven’t improved compliance with New Mexico’s compulsory school law, haven’t improved things for New Mexico’s school kids, and haven’t improved things for its workforce, taxpayer base or economy.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.