Truancy fight tests schools, legal system

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High school dropouts are a drain on everyone in a community, weakening the work force, weighing on the economy and relying more often on social services.

But dropouts aren't born overnight. They begin as truants, schoolchildren who develop the habit of skipping school and progressively get worse, according to a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation called truancy the greatest predictor of dropping out of school.

"Kids just don't wake up one morning and say, 'Gosh, I don't think I'm going to school anymore,' " said Carol Rountree, Richmond County's director of guidance, testing and research. "If we allow them to become disconnected early on, we're going to have a hard time building a meaningful relationship for them that continues through 12 years."

Getting children to school, however, is a significant stumbling block for Richmond County.

There's a clichà in education that a teacher can't teach children who aren't in class. Increasingly, pupils are skipping so much school that the juvenile justice system must intervene.

This get-tough approach, however, appears broken, failing to adequately address the truancy problem.

If the system worked as it should, pupils with five unexcused absences would be sent to Juvenile Court, the only court responsible for rehabilitating offenders. The court would then be able to identify the barriers preventing the child from going to school and provide resources to remove or overcome those barriers.

Most of the time, that is not happening. Truants usually don't even make it to court.

For starters, schools don't always know where pupils live. Some parents ignore the summons to appear in court. And the courts are limited in what they can do.

Neither the state nor the school system maintains records of the effectiveness of truancy hearings. To get an idea of the problem, The Augusta Chronicle asked permission in December to observe truancy hearings in Richmond County Juvenile Court.

Over the next few months, The Chronicle witnessed 93 hearings, which are usually closed to the public. They offered a glimpse into the issue.

"I don't like school," a sixth-grader at Morgan Road Middle School said during a March hearing after 25 unexcused absences.

His father said the 12-year-old stays out until 11 each night, sometimes not returning home until 3 a.m.

The same day in court, pupils claimed asthma, hypothyroidism and stomach ulcers kept them from school.

Such excuses no longer surprise Richmond County Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders, who presides over truancy hearings.

"Quite frankly, we're seeing a heck of a lot more truancy cases," he said.

In 2005-06, 1,001 pupils were referred to court. A year later, that increased to 1,065, and this past year the number rose to 1,162.

Part of the problem is that society is more accepting of truancy, Judge Saunders said. No longer do children skip school and hide.

"Nothing burns my chaps more than to be here at 11 or 12 o'clock, go to lunch and see some kid riding his bike," he said. "I just can't wrap my mind around it."

A trip to truancy court is enough to set some pupils on the right path, but others are unfazed, such as the child summoned in March for the second time in three months.

Judge Saunders, who has become adept at suspecting drug use, ordered an immediate drug test for the Hephzibah Middle School pupil

The test came back positive for marijuana and cocaine.

"Mom, we're going to try to help him, but right now he's teetering on the path of destruction," the judge said from the bench shortly after ordering that her son be detained for a psychological evaluation. Juveniles who are detained are locked up at the Regional Youth Detention Center for a few days.

Often a symptom

Truancy is usually the sign of a larger problem, Judge Saunders said, emphasizing the need to address the root cause.

One seventh-grader who appeared before him cut class for two months. He was assigned to the alternative school by a school tribunal but couldn't get a ride there. Buses are provided only for special-education pupils at the alternative school.

His mother leaves early in the morning to make it to the fast-food restaurant where she works. As a single mother, she depends on the job, she told Judge Saunders, explaining why she was unable to supervise him and ensure he got to school.

Most juveniles who appear in truancy court are accompanied by a single parent or a grandparent, Judge Saunders said. It's rare for both parents to be involved in the child's life.

For instance, a 12-year-old appeared in his courtroom after missing 26 days of school, 12 of which were unexcused. His guardian, a distraught grandmother, said she didn't know where her grandson's father was and that his mother is incarcerated.

Judge Saunders said there is also a direct correlation between truancy and crime.

In the most public recent example of truancy, Coreon Andreiko Jackson, the 12-year-old sentenced to 81/2 years in a juvenile justice facility for killing a man, hadn't been to school most of the 2007-08 year. He was due in court for skipping school March 24, the same day he had a detention hearing on the murder charge.

Sheriff Ronnie Strength wasn't surprised Coreon hadn't been to school. Only a small fraction of juveniles pose problems for his deputies, but it's getting worse.

Truancy, one of these problems, is becoming more prevalent, but it's out of his hands, Sheriff Strength said.

"The thing about it is we don't have the time or the manpower to stop truancy," he said.

He said his job would be easier if juveniles were in schools rather than out in the streets.

A broken system

Unlike other courts, the goal of juvenile court is to rehabilitate offenders and address the root of their problems, but most of the Richmond County children in need of this help never made it to court while The Chronicle observed truancy hearings.

Sometimes the Richmond County Juvenile Court and the school system have conflicts. Last fall, for example, truancy hearings were suspended for a few weeks because school officials refused to turn over student records at the court's request.

Judge Saunders maintained he needed grades and complete attendance and discipline records to better guide his actions on the bench. School officials said there were problems with such compliance.

This led the judge to begin subpoenaing principals, requiring that they show up to court in person with the student records.

Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden said it's not easy coordinating the efforts of two large agencies, but he is satisfied with the cooperation between the school system and the court system since then.

Even when cooperating, there are delays. The process can drag on so long that pupils collect several more absences before getting to court.

Linda Heggs, the head of the school social worker program, said during a public meeting that the sluggish system of filing court petitions can lead to a two-month delay. During that time, absences continue to mount.

Perhaps the most prevalent hindrance to the process is the problem with children's addresses.

It's common that truant pupils don't make it to court because the addresses on file with the school system are inaccurate and no one knows where they live.

"Time after time after time again, we have these situations where the kid's definitely truant, but the addresses aren't any good," Judge Saunders said, wondering whether the addresses are intentionally incorrect so children can attend school out of zone. "It causes a huge problem when we try to conduct business, such as truancy. Heaven forbid that something bad happens with the child and you need to contact a family member."

Deputy Superintendent James Thompson, who has been with the school system for 32 years, said accurate addresses have always been a problem and remain one of the biggest issues.

"It's difficult to find parents, and it's difficult to get correct addresses on students, because the parents won't tell you the correct address. The students won't tell you the correct address," he said. "We only have the address we have on record, and if that's not correct, the parents have to tell us when they move."

Even when addresses are correct, some families just don't show up to court. No longer are there truancy officers to round up children who skip. Instead, school social workers use their limited time and resources to track down truants, complete the lengthy paperwork for court hearings and address the underlying problems tied to missing school.

"Our social workers try to deal with truancy at the same time they are trying to provide the typical services a social worker would do," Dr. Bedden said.

Such efforts are important because pupils who skip school put more than themselves at risk. One child's excessive absences prevented Tutt Middle School from making adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind two years ago. This despite the school producing higher test scores than many schools that did make AYP.

Principal Debbie Alexander reviews weekly printouts, looking for excessive absences, and Anthony Young, the school's graduation coach, meets twice a week with the pupils most at risk.

"If we can save them now, then hopefully they won't drop out of high school," Dr. Alexander said. "This is where you can catch them."

Sometimes that means Mr. Young, who is also a wide receiver for the Augusta Colts arena football team, makes home visits to encourage children to attend school.

"That's the biggest thing with a kid is you need an adult with time to listen," he said. "Truly, a lot of them don't. A lot of the time, it's not the parents' fault, because they're working so much trying to make ends meet."

Children cry in his office, and mothers call him asking him to be a father figure, Mr. Young said.

Relationships are important, and Tutt tries to establish a personal relationship with each pupil, Dr. Alexander said. If children don't feel missed, they're less likely to make an effort to go to class.

An evolving process

Since his January 2007 appointment to the bench, Judge Saunders has adapted his tactics for dealing with truants.

Rather than taking what is given to him, he has become aggressive in dealing with them and their families. Earlier in the school year, he would quickly skip over cases in which families did not appear in court, but later he began requesting a deputy drive by the family's house.

If the family still refuses to show up, Judge Saunders issues a bench warrant for the parents' arrest. Throughout the year, he estimated he issued 20-30 bench warrants.

"If it's not important to the parents, it's not going to be important to the child," he said.

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ibewalkingtomemphis
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ibewalkingtomemphis 08/31/08 - 04:54 am
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Another bedden

Another bedden accomplishment. However, lock the parents up if they don't want to ensure the kids are in school,

patriciathomas
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patriciathomas 08/31/08 - 05:32 am
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The vast majority, well over

The vast majority, well over 90%, of these children are the product of generations of government subsidy. This is the result of replacing the father with a government check and replacing individual responsibility with a government check. This is only one of the numerous social pariahs created by this well intentioned system. It took many years to create this huge parasite on society and it will take at least as long to get beyond it, but NOTHING will be accomplished until this root cause is identified by those perpetuating it. The truancy court is an attempt to cure the problem by treating a symptom.

vicktotheend
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vicktotheend 08/31/08 - 05:50 am
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patriciathomas....how do we

patriciathomas....how do we cure the problem?

patriciathomas
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patriciathomas 08/31/08 - 07:08 am
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vicktotheend, by replacing

vicktotheend, by replacing the government subsidy check with a father and personal responsibility. Reversing the foundation of the root cause. The same entity that precipitated this situation is the only one large enough to reverse it. It'll take years of concerted effort and determination, just as it did to cause the problem.

Chuchi
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Chuchi 08/31/08 - 07:31 am
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I am glad to see that Judge

I am glad to see that Judge Saunders is pursuing the parents aggressively; that is probably what will make the difference in these cases. If the parents get in trouble then they will work a whole lot harder to make sure their kids get the education they are supposed to have.

JohnQPublic
5
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JohnQPublic 08/31/08 - 08:04 am
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Another generation of

Another generation of uneducated young folks making and having babies. The father's are uneducated kids themselves. If they had any intention of being a father to these children, they would be in their lives already. This is a generational curse. And the beat goes on.....

Bored in GA
2
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Bored in GA 08/31/08 - 08:27 am
0
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Parents need to step up and

Parents need to step up and PARENT again. Go back to the neighborhood schools and then they have no problem hanging out with their friends at school. The system stinks that we still have to bus!

Farful
7
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Farful 08/31/08 - 10:06 am
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OK, all you fathers who are

OK, all you fathers who are responsible people, please form a line so we can reverse the foundation of the root cause.....ridiculous.

jack
10
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jack 08/31/08 - 10:49 am
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I see it is always the FATHER

I see it is always the FATHER who is at fault, when mothers of these kids are just as guilty of not proiding the parenting, even when single, that these kids need. My mom was a single parent and we kids were gotten up and ready to school and we had better not have the school calling her for us not showing up or beng aprolem. I was a single parent of one of my children and I had control and discipline that ensured he knew he better get to school and NOT cause any trouble or he was in trouble with me. I am one of those parents who also gave permission to the school to use corporal punishment (butt spanking with a paddle). I am a supporter of returning schools to the philsophy and law of "in loco parentis" where the school has absolute control of students as soon as they enter school grounds or at a school function such as a ball game. Keep up the good work Judge Suanders.

dani
12
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dani 08/31/08 - 12:05 pm
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I know that it is not easy

I know that it is not easy for a single parent to raise a child. You drop the child off at school on your way to work so that you can make sure he/she attends and he slips out the side door and goes back home (or worse). You are at your job and have no way of knowing. Or, the school calls and says the child is not in school so you take time off to go try to make the child understand. The child is larger and stronger than you and refuses to be restricted. Finally you are at juvenile court and the child is told that he better not do it again or else. The child does it again and there is no "else". I don't know the answer, but there is no simple answer and that's for sure.

patriciathomas
42
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patriciathomas 08/31/08 - 12:07 pm
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ghtty, only by ignoring the

ghtty, only by ignoring the rest of my post would you be able to come up with a post that is typically .... ridiculous

FedupwithAUG
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FedupwithAUG 08/31/08 - 12:16 pm
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butt spanking should be

butt spanking should be allowed, and more parents should go to jail. If they cant manage their kids they should be required to put them in the YDC.

workingmom
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workingmom 08/31/08 - 01:06 pm
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cissy, I can easily see where

cissy, I can easily see where you are coming from. I have seen children come from wonderful parents who cared, supported and disciplined their children growing up only to watch their child go down the wrong path. This can happen in any family, although it is more likely to happen in certain households than others. As hard as it would be, tough love comes to mind here. It might take a parent calling the authorities on their child to give him a wake up call and prevent further self destruction. Some children require stricter punishment when they do not abide by the set rules. Others just seem to do well despite having parents who refuse to take part in teaching them the basics of life and helping them with their education. Too many factors play into situations such as this to put the blame on one person.

North Richmond County
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North Richmond County 08/31/08 - 01:12 pm
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Patricia thomas you are a

Patricia thomas you are a fool seriosuly sometimes. Do you even really believe half the stuff you say. How come according to the right wing everybody is always on welfare. If you believe 90% of kids who drop out or on welfare you're definitely misguided. There are a bunch of working poor and lower middle class families. That kids come from that don't finish highschool.

When I used to live outside of pittsburgh. It was a mostly working class town. Yes there were some people on welfare. But nowhere near 90% of people. And some of those kids drooped out had parents who were working everyday.

patriciathomas
42
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patriciathomas 08/31/08 - 01:16 pm
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North Richmond County, where

North Richmond County, where did I say anyone was on welfare? Where did I say 90% of the dropouts were on welfare? I think you may have read my post and transposed it to your beliefs. Read it again and see if it makes sense. (hint: be sure to read the article first and relate it to what I posted)

North Richmond County
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North Richmond County 08/31/08 - 01:18 pm
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Im just wondering why does

Im just wondering why does the republicans always think or say everybody is on welfare. Its gets old after a while. I mean some people are on welfare we all know that. But according to the repbulicans everybody in america is on welfare as has been at one time. According to patricia thomas its generations of welfare.
Not only do republcans think everybody is on welfare. But they think everybody mother and grandmother was too. No wonder why the middle class and working poor are voting for democrats in record numbers. According to the republicans they're just lazy, uneducated, people on welfare. When rich kids or upper middle class kids drop out of school whats they're excuse then?

North Richmond County
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North Richmond County 08/31/08 - 01:20 pm
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From patricia thomas'' The

From patricia thomas'' The vast majority, well over 90%, of these children are the product of generations of government subsidy.''

North Richmond County
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North Richmond County 08/31/08 - 01:21 pm
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Typical right wing talking

Typical right wing talking points.

patriciathomas
42
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patriciathomas 08/31/08 - 01:24 pm
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NRC, you make a lot of

NRC, you make a lot of mistakes in your post, especially when referring to what I've written. Then you make outrageous comments on your mistakes. Are you trying to talk yourself into a fit? Try staying with the facts or show where I made the comments attributed to me.

patriciathomas
42
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patriciathomas 08/31/08 - 01:27 pm
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"...these children..."

"...these children..." referred to the children in front of the truancy court. They come from single parent homes where the mother is often absent for what ever reason. Should we ignore the cause of their misbehavior? Isn't that why they wind up in front of the truancy court?

Craig Spinks
817
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Craig Spinks 08/31/08 - 01:43 pm
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KUDOS to the AC for providing

KUDOS to the AC for providing a front page-focus on our truancy problem! Its identifying a problem is the requisite first-step in a community's solving it.

starrweaver
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starrweaver 08/31/08 - 04:32 pm
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I'm an ex-employee of the

I'm an ex-employee of the school system. There is another issue that isn't addressed here. I also don't believe that a child doesn't just wake up one morning and decide not to go back to school. Many do just that! There are reasons behind "I don't like school." I left the system when they started the ADD scam, I was there when they came up with it! I can't believe how it's been blown up! Schools have cut workshops that offered skill training, cut programs like music, art and crafts - they even tried to do away with gym class!
Schools get more money for every "disabled or special" kid, there are aggression issues, violence & problems with teaching real science in some school. The zero tolerance policy has condemed smart students & nearly killed others with it's no brains, hands off attitude. I've homeschooled mine since 1996 in Georgia. My son was in 3rd grade the school tried to force me to put him on drugs, even when our dr. said he wasn't ADD. I finally said enough! He's now a HS grad. something they said he'd never be. Changes are needed in the school system too if kids are going to want to go to classes. With the short budget this year, more kids are going to drop out.

TheTruth
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TheTruth 08/31/08 - 04:44 pm
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I'm not sure what the numbers

I'm not sure what the numbers are, but I agree with Ms. Thomas about there being too many government subsidies without accountablility. I say that parents should have to prove residence for their child to attend schools. I'm sick of this, "I stay with my auntie" garbage. There needs to be a name on the lease and it needs to match who has legal custody. Also, to continue to get SSI, food stamps, welfare, section eight, and/or medicade, parents should be required to get the schools to verify that the child is attending their zoned school and making adequate progress. That's the only way to change the culture of self-deprecation.

TheTruth
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TheTruth 08/31/08 - 04:46 pm
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Oh yeah, another attachment

Oh yeah, another attachment to government subsidies should be a requirement to identify the father. Otherwise...NO MONEY!!!

anotherlook
82
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anotherlook 08/31/08 - 06:59 pm
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If I am not mistaken, I think

If I am not mistaken, I think that the common belief posited here is that corporal punishment, i.e. spankings are illegal. Actually, there is no such statute that makes spankings illegal in the State of Georgia. And I don't doubt its efficacy in some cases. Moreover, I am not denying the effects of poverty and a lack of parental responsibility and involvement as significant factors aggravating this issue, I believe that it could be useful to consider another approach to addressing this problem. If there are certain factors that we know place the children at high risk for truancy and dropping out of school, then are there ways that we can identify them early on? For instance, instead of placing more of a drain on the School Social workers, maybe Case workers, could gather the information under the supervision of the Social workers. The Social workers could then establish a "case plan" providing services, resources and referrals for the children which would address each childs needs and require the cooperation of the parent with the alternative being that the School would bring charges of educational neglect against the parent(s) as a punitive action for parental non-compliance.

anotherlook
82
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anotherlook 08/31/08 - 08:16 pm
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Educational Case workers

Educational Case workers (ECWs) could monitor the parent's progress and recommend modifications to the plan as necessary. Yes, I recognize that we need to consider the cost of adding yet another layer of bureaucracy. But consider the fact that funding is lost with every absentee child. The tax base itself is continuing to shrink with people moving when the schools don't make AYP. Spending on law enforcement responding to crimes by young people as well as on the courts efforts and placement in Regional Youth Detention Centers continues to increase. This cycle can be interrupted with targeted case management. Additionally, a pool of ECWs to be drawn from students in Education Programs at the surrounding colleges and universities could be trained and tapped for these positions. Funding may even be sought through federal work study programs, crime prevention or other grant sources. Remember, the costs of failing our communities are already there. What we are doing is not working. We must make changes. Our efforts to address these concerns will result in future savings and hopefully with much cooperation, determination, and persistence can interrupt the "school to prison pipeline."

anotherlook
82
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anotherlook 08/31/08 - 08:36 pm
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Finally, let us remember that

Finally, let us remember that to a certain extent, individual school systems establish their own policies and procedures which are intended to reflect the mores and values of each commu-nity. Which brings me to the next point. When almost every thing in our society and culture has changed, why do we continue to believe that institutions must cling to the same institutional approaches that worked in days gone by? We are a post-industrial society, not an agriculturally based society. Our student populations are far more diverse than those at the beginning of the 20th century. Our economy is being driven by research and technological development. Maybe children that no longer see the relevance of education are just recognizing something that we as adults fail to admit: education is not preparing them for participation in society. Yes we have magnet schools...but that's just creaming e.g. taking the most talented students and putting them in an environment where they can thrive even more. But our society needs mechanics, and public safety officers, and hospitality personnel as well. If our schools were willing to develop linkages with businesses, relevance could be returned.

anotherlook
82
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anotherlook 08/31/08 - 08:58 pm
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When I say linkages, I don't

When I say linkages, I don't just mean financial support. What I mean is internships and assistanceships that will educate and train the workforce of the future. Surely we would continue to have college preparatory tracks for those students who are interested, but for others a school to work track could be developed. After testing at the end of middle school, a consultation would be made with the cooperation of the parents and a plan developed to meet the needs and interests of that particular child. Again, funding could be addressed through federal grants and assistance from the department of labor. In this way the community as a whole could benefit and in the long run a more educated prepared workforce would draw businesses to the area because our graduates were ready to work. When we realize that every problem poses an opportunity and we turn our efforts to making positive incremental changes, situations can be turned around. The industrial complexes of both Japan and Germany were devastated by war. It was American ingenuity and resources that gave them the foundation to establish two of the most thriving competitive economies in the world. We can do the same for ourselves.

MaryPlayer
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MaryPlayer 08/31/08 - 09:46 pm
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Let me tell ya'll how to

Let me tell ya'll how to handle truancy. My youngest daughter cut school when she was in the ninth grade. I can guarantee you by the time I got through wearing her rear end out with a belt, she did not cut school again. She graduated at the top of her class. Went to college on a full scholarship and did NOT cut classes while there. She graduated Magna cum laude with a double major and accomplished this in three years. It takes more than having children to qualify one for the role of parent.

patriciathomas
42
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patriciathomas 08/31/08 - 09:52 pm
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I think restoring the work

I think restoring the work ethic and goal oriented efforts of our society is a great idea, but I'm not certain if several more layers of bureaucracy is the answer. I feel that moving backward toward individual responsibility, earning what you get and repaying what you borrow, is the answer. Stop providing so much "free" with no strings attached. It not only trains those receiving the rewards to expect a free ride, it also trains those that see the receivers getting the free ride. Then politicians promise more "free" goodies to win votes and more people become dependent and the decline continues. We have to move back to the "no free lunch" attitude. Anything else keeps us on the current slippery slope.

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