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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007 02:31 pm

Getting them back on track

Sometimes, the reasons some kids skip school can be overwhelming

Untitled Document Sherry Williams no longer answers her cell phone, at least not when I ring her. If I want to arrange a play date between her adorable daughter and my adoring son, I have to type a text message to Sherry’s phone. The fact that she doesn’t respond to a jingle isn’t personal, she says; she just had to quit answering her cell because she has given her number to too many kids. Sherry’s like that — too big-hearted for her own good. If a kid needs a ride to school or Walgreens or the grocery store or home to Grandma’s house, Sherry has a hard time wrapping her lips around the word “no.” Because the requests are both relentless and logistically impossible, she has no choice but to ignore them. Sherry works at Southeast High School as the truancy interventionist, a position created last year by Principal Tammy Bolden. This year the other two District 186 high schools created similar posts, and those interventionists have looked to Sherry to see how she handles truant kids — but Sherry has quickly come to realize that her caseload dwarfs theirs.
The first time I trapped her into talking about her job, she had spent that entire day trying to list chronically truant freshmen. Of the class of 463, she had found about 60 kids with at least four absences — and she’d just made it to the letter R. Even more startling: Some kids had already amassed 13 absences, and it was only the 15th day of school. I know what you’re thinking, but maybe you need to click off the talk radio for a minute and see what’s happening in the real world. When I ask Sherry to list the top causes of truancy, the first thing she says is “Economics.”
Her efforts to track down truants begin with contacting a parent or guardian, but she frequently finds that the phone number has been disconnected. When she drives to the child’s home address, she often meets an elderly grandmother, raising her children’s children — or even their grandchildren — on a meager fixed income. Some kids are less lucky: They’re transient, staying with friends or bunking with relatives, essentially homeless. Some tell Sherry they’re embarrassed to come to school because they don’t have clean clothes to wear or money for a proper haircut. A few lack such basic personal-hygiene necessities as toothpaste and deodorant; some even need a bar of soap. Another cause of truancy, Sherry says, is parenting — students who already have babies of their own. They have all the problems of any high-school student, plus an extra layer of complications. For example, Sherry recently had to pull a young mother out of class because her daycare provider called, claiming that her baby was sick. The mother told Sherry that the baby wasn’t sick, just teething. In fact, the baby had apparently fussed all night. “When I went to the class to get the girl, she had her head down on her desk. She was asleep,” Sherry says. Some kids tell Sherry they don’t want to attend school because it’s “boring” or “dumb” — and for some that may be true. However, many of the truant students have simply fallen too far behind academically to ever fit in. Sherry says her biggest frustration is social promotion — kids who get sent to the next grade without the necessary knowledge or skills.
“These kids have gotten way off track,” she says.
A review board can send such students to the “after-school program,” which is open for about two hours ever day after regular classes. This service offers students a couple of easy core classes, but Sherry sees kids settle into what she describes as a “holding pattern,” watching the calendar count down to freedom. At age 16, they can attend the Lawrence Adult Education Center; at age 17, they can legally drop out. Then there are kids who choose to skip school because they feel lonely, alienated, unwelcome. When they do come to school, they tend to drop by Sherry’s desk just to check in for a hug. I can’t help it; my eyes roll when she tells me this, because Sherry’s a drop-dead-gorgeous woman. But she insists that that’s not why they hug her. They just crave a connection with somebody — anybody — who cares about them. “Besides, it’s not the boys; it’s the girls,” she says. One such student — whose family recently moved here from another state — disappeared from school a few days after Sherry found her sleeping in a bathroom stall. Someone at the girl’s home told Sherry that the girl hated school because she “felt invisible” there. She wasn’t invisible to Sherry; Sherry still worries about this 15-year-old, who has now been missing for weeks. Her job overwhelms her. Some days, she cries as she drives away from Southeast, trying to hold back the really big sobs until she gets home. She dreams about winning the lottery. “If I had a lot of money, I’d build a big house and just provide shelter for these kids,” she says. “I don’t know the answer. I just know something has to happen, because these kids are our future.”
Occasionally, though, her work pays off in ways she never imagined. A boy who was truant last year transformed over the summer into a respectful, enthusiastic student. A girl who had left home recently reunited with her family and subsequently discovered a genuine interest in academics. Noticing that this girl was suddenly laden with textbooks, Sherry found her a hand-me-down backpack. “She has turned it around so much, I can see it, literally, in the way she walks,” Sherry says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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