Charles Robinson’s morning is already upended.
With a rap on the wooden door of his small office, he learns the mother of a child in his caseload overdosed on drugs the night before.
He had planned to do home visits with a middle school social worker. With a few deep breaths, Robinson collects himself. Then moments later, a phone call interrupts again.
A teenager under his watch just got into a fight at Roosevelt High School and needs a ride home to serve out a five-day suspension. The home visits with the social worker will have to wait.
Robinson is a deputy juvenile officer in the St. Louis Family Court truancy unit. The job comes with a badge, but Robinson and his colleagues don’t see themselves as cops. They get involved in children’s lives when they are missing a significant amount of school. They’re often the last chance at getting a child’s education back on track.
“Attendance will always be an issue,” Robinson said. “I don’t see us fixing it permanently, forever. If your kid’s not going to school, there’s something else going on. We’re supportive, we’re going to help you.”
Truancy officers spend their days checking in on kids at school — and sometimes bringing them to school if they’re not there already — and meeting with parents, Robinson says, “so they trust us enough to help them figure things out.”
Robinson, 49, has a shaved head and graying goatee. He travels around St. Louis in a messy Scion XD he’s unapologetic about; with a binder full of case notes always in tow.
The names in his binder are of children who are missing enough school to be considered chronically absent and at high risk of falling so far behind in school they’ll become too old for their grade level or drop out before graduating.
Why schools need students to attend
Chronic absenteeism, or truancy, is becoming an increasing focus of education policy. Several states have made it a measure of a school district’s academic success under new federal education guidelines known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Missouri sets the benchmark that 90 percent of students should be in class 90 percent of the time. If a district falls below “90-90,” it loses crucial points in state accreditation and state per-student funding. Attendance is both a focus and struggle for schools in low-income areas.
Yet the emphasis on improving attendance is not only driven by accreditation points, said Chad Rooney, acting principal at Shenandoah Elementary.
“If they’re not in the building they’re not learning,” he said.
Shenandoah is a small St. Louis Public Schools neighborhood school for children in the surrounding Tower Grove East neighborhood. With 195 students, the margin for meeting attendance benchmarks is thin. Rooney said the flu is tearing through his building and below-freezing morning temperatures this winter have hurt attendance.
SLPS and many charter schools have social workers and attendance officers on staff that try to fix problems before the truancy unit is called. Once classroom attendance sheets are sent down to the main office, secretaries start calling parents whose children aren’t at school.
“We try to work with the parents as much as possible and give the parents as many options as we can provide,” Rooney said.
When three or four missed days turns into 10, a student is “hotlined” for more attention and the truancy unit can be assigned the case. That’s where deputy juvenile officers, such as Robinson, come in.
Robinson’s morning is behind schedule, but he finally makes it to his meeting with the school social worker.
“This is a lot of names,” Robinson remarks, peering over his glasses at the list of chronically absent pupils.
There are 68 names. “I’m overwhelmed,” the social worker replies.
Scare tactics won’t work
On another cold winter morning, Robinson is headed to a charter middle school to check on a student.
The boy is one of 10 kids being raised by a single mother. They’re constantly on the move trying to find housing. (St. Louis Public Radio is not using children's names to protect their privacy.)
Classes at KIPP’s Inspire Academy start at 7:10 a.m. Robinson arrives around 9 in the morning and learns from the secretary the boy has been there all morning. He’s happily surprised.
“The fact that he was there on time today totally caught me off guard,” he said.
Robinson spends 15 minutes with the boy, asking how school is going and life at home. Robinson suspects he’s involved in a gang. “He tells me he’s safe, but my gut tells me he’s not.”
“His attendance is still not good,” Robinson said. “There are days when I go looking, certainly go knocking at his mom’s house. I go over there constantly looking for him and he’s never there.”
Robinson said he’s learned simply scaring a kid into going to school doesn’t work.
“We do not pull kids out of their house and make them go to school,” he said. “We like to say we have lots of carrots and maybe one stick.”
Carrots and sticks
Sometimes, the stick becomes all that is left for a truancy officer.
Joli Baker, a 17-year veteran and head of the unit, has run out of options with the mother of a 10-year-old girl.
“The girl has missed at least 50 days this school year,” said Baker, while seated in her car outside the girl’s home. “That’s a lot of days.”
The mother has missed appointments with Baker and other social services. Phone calls and text messages have gone unanswered.
“I literally don’t know what to do at some points with some families with little kids who just don’t go to school, and we’re really doing what we can on our end,” she said.
Baker gets out and goes to knock on the door. A man who says he’s the girl’s great uncle opens and signs for the court summons. If the girl starts going to school regularly, “it’s all good and there’s nothing to sweat about,” Baker tells him.
Attendance problems for children this young often fall on the parents, according to Baker. It’s also where there’s the best chance of improving attendance, as teenagers are harder to impact.
A better day
On a warm morning in late January, Robinson arrived at Ford Elementary, a plain-looking concrete school in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in northwest St. Louis.
He’s here to make sure enrolling a client goes smoothly. Just outside the office door, the 13-year-old boy’s grandmother and a family friend are waiting for him.
“I’m glad to see you,” Robinson tells the boy, who seems bashful. Robinson produces a piece of candy from his binder.
The boy has been in and out of school. He has learning disabilities that led to two stints at a residential alternative school. Getting him to school in the morning is usually a fight, according to his grandmother, his primary caretaker. And then once he’s in class, there’s a constant urge to flee.
“He don’t understand [classwork] and he don’t ask for help, so he gets frustrated. So when I drop him off at school he’ll just leave,” she said. “But Mr. Robinson really helped me with the court system and the paperwork to get him into school.”
On this morning, he was dressed and ready to go, his grandmother said, giving her hope.
“He came in on his own and was ready,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”
But the boy won’t be at this school long; he’s too old for the fifth grade and will transfer to sixth at a different building.
As he leaves, Robinson says he’s hopeful today is the start of positive momentum toward improving the boy’s attendance. That’s because he sees the grandmother and her friend are getting invested.
“If they spend a year with us and we do all of this fantastic work with them,” he said, “and when we’re done they go back to a house that doesn’t value education, nothing is sustained.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney