The young woman, mother of a first grader, enters the conference room at San Francisco’s Bret Harte Elementary School with a big smile, excited to show the group at the table her appointment card for an upcoming doctor’s visit. Scheduling the appointment, which is to address a health problem that had contributed to her son’s frequent absences from school, was on her “truancy action plan” for the week.
The group congratulating her for completing this task, the Truancy Action Partnership (TAP) team, in part comprises a typical school meeting: The seven people around the table include the principal, a school social worker, and a family liaison. Not so usual is the presence of California Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo, the supervising judge of San Francisco’s Unified Family Court.
A collaboration between San Francisco Superior Court, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), SF Health Network, Human Services Agency and other community-based organizations, TAP is a non-punitive program to assist families with children in kindergarten through fifth grade who have been identified as habitually or chronically truant.
Massullo was inspired to spearhead the launch of this new collaborative program after attending the Keeping Kids in School and Out of Courts (KKIS) summit in 2013 which kicked off a formalized relationship between the state’s court and school systems to do exactly what the summit’s name implies. She heard a presentation there about a program in Baltimore in which judges go into high schools to meet with students in an effort to identify the root causes of their truancy and connect them to support services to address them.
From her experience overseeing San Francisco’s traditional truancy court where students with infractions come into the courtroom, Massullo said, she wanted to reach students earlier in their school experience. TAP is now offered at three SFUSD elementary schools, including Bret Harte.
“The statistics show us that if children aren’t reading and math proficient by third grade,” Massullo said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change, “they fall behind, and don’t feel good about school. And that creates issues of truancy later on.”
Of the 5,000 students in SFUSD who are chronically or habitually truant each year, 40 percent are in elementary school. The 2015 California Attorney General’s report cites studies showing that students who cannot read on grade level in third grade are four times more likely to later drop out than those who can.
In California, a student is considered “chronically truant” after being absent without a valid excuse for 10 percent or more of the school days in one school year. Students who miss more than that are deemed “habitually truant.” Parents of students in both of these categories are subject to fines and possible jail time if the truancy continues after they’ve been offered support services to address their child’s truancy.
Now that the TAP program has launched, Massullo is working with the school district and the Human Services Agency to develop another non-punitive program to address the high truancy rates for the over 450 SFUSD students who have open dependency cases. Still in the planning stages, the new program will be run differently from TAP and will serve students in elementary, middle and high schools.
In the TAP program, Superior Court judges, including Massullo, along with school staff and community partners, meet with parents at the school once a week for six weeks. Two judges are assigned to each school so that if one is unable to attend, the other can step in. Some of the judges are retired, and all are volunteering their time. They cannot provide legal advice or aid but rather, often provide context for what to expect at a custody court date or other legal proceeding. They also make connections to supportive services.
“For a lot of people in this community,” said Massullo, “their idea of a judge is someone who metes out punishment.” But through the success of the TAP program, she said, “the community is now understanding that we’re human and we care. We have to–because we took an oath–enforce the law, but no one ever takes pleasure in sentencing someone. This whole program is meant to reduce that pipeline.”
Students and their families are referred to the TAP program by school staff. It is a voluntary program, the completion of which can help a family avoid a referral to the court system.
Given the young age of the children in the TAP program, it is their parents, not the students, sitting at the table with the team of professionals, and together, they come up with a plan of action to address the barriers contributing to the absences.
“When kids aren’t coming to school at five and six years old,” said Jeremy Hilinski, the principal at Bret Harte, “it often has very little to do with their will to come to school but rather the capacity of the family to bring the kid to school.”
Hilinski cites multiple common causes of truancy in the early grades: unstable housing or homelessness, mental health, addiction and domestic violence. Accordingly, a typical TAP action plan includes referrals to organizations that can assist a parent or family with these issues. Parents are not just handed a card and told to call an agency, however. Depending on the issue area, a member of the TAP team may contact the parent and/or the agency to support the parent in making the connection.
Bigger systemic problems like unreliable public transportation require more than a phone call and showing up for an appointment. Parents frequently tell the TAP team that their child was late for school because the city bus they rely on didn’t come on time or passed by because it was full.
“I don’t run MUNI [San Francisco’s municipal bus system],” said Massullo, “but if I did or if I were the mayor, I would try a pilot program—add more buses when and where parents say they need them, and see if, in six months, the truancy rates go down.”
At the TAP meeting, Massullo tells the group she has contacted MUNI to set up a meeting to discuss the idea. Principal Hilinski offers to host a community meeting at the school to bring together families and MUNI officials. A school staff member will look into which bus lines students with a record of tardies take, and provide that information to Judge Massullo prior to the meeting.
“If you can fix the buses,” says the mom in the meeting for whom unreliable buses have frequently caused her son to be late, “you’ll be a miracle worker.”
Some parents referred to the TAP program express initial concerns about having a judge in the room, according to Hilinski, but those qualms are soon eased, he said, after they meet Judge Massullo.
“We really like her,” he said. “She’s in tune with the needs of the community. She has kids…She understands the needs of people, and she’s really good at talking to them.”
Once the families realize that the program is not punitive, and “no one is judging them,” Hilinski said, they want to come to their TAP meetings, and now other families are requesting to be a part of the program.
Most importantly, he says, it’s working. “What we find is when we support the family, we get the kids to school.”
Students and families who complete the six-week program and get the student’s attendance back on track receive a certification of completion. They can come back into the program later if attendance challenges again arise.
Asked how she feels about the program at the end of her six weeks, one mother says, “I’m happy. I know I needed it, and it’s really helped me.”
This story is part of a series funded by The Stuart Foundation on behalf of the California Chief Justice’s Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Initiative.