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In the Philadelphia public school system, truancy is defined as more than three unexcused absences in a row. But some Philadelphia students take this definition of truancy to an extreme — some boast attendance records with more than 100 absences. When Philadelphia Family Court Administrative Judge Myrna Field got word that students in area neighborhoods were missing more days of school than they were attending, she devised a summer program designed to help curb absences while helping students boost their reading and mathematics skills. Thursday night, 28 students, with an average of 72 missed days of school in the 2001-02 school year, graduated from the seven-week program. Early this year, Field applied to the city Department of Human Services for a $25,000 grant, and the agency approved the funding. The school board, the city probation and solicitor’s offices and the Philadelphia police also helped the program in its inaugural year, Field said. DHS also funded two full-time teachers for the program. The students were broken into two classes of 14, Field said. In a school system where class size hovers in the 40s, program participants were able to receive more individual instruction. Apparently, one-on-one and small-group instruction gave the students a jolt they needed: Preliminary tests conducted four weeks into the program showed that 85 percent of the students gained more than one-half of a grade level in both reading and math. Most of the 28 students live in the area surrounding Front Street and Hunting Park, Field said. “We tried to pick out kids from the same type of area,” Field said. “We wanted to keep them all together.” Selecting students from the same area, she said, aided in transporting them to the program. The school board provided a bus to take students to and from class each day. To encourage attendance, students were fed breakfast and lunch, and each Thursday they ventured outside the classroom to points of interest and activities in Philadelphia, including Phillies baseball games, the Franklin Institute, the newly opened police station on Broad Street and, with the hope that the program would encourage students to take a closer look at higher education, the Community College of Philadelphia. Field said that excessive truancy had been linked to delinquent behavior and that the hope is that the program will therefore benefit not only the students, but also the community that suffers the consequences of truants with too much time on their hands. “What I am being told is that truancy is the earmark of delinquency,” Field said, meaning that all the participants in the program have a greater likelihood of engaging in delinquent behavior than young people who regularly attend classes. Students’ parents were also invited to attend class one evening a week. The sessions focused on how parents should interact with their children to encourage attendance and how to promote academic achievement. The courses also addressed communication issues that frequently arise between parents and their teen-age children. Parents who attended all seven sessions were given a financial reward, Field said. But this part of the program was not entirely a success. As of press time, only eight parents of the 28 students had attended each session. Field said she hoped to secure more funding for the program next year so that more Philadelphia public school students could participate. Also in the initial planning stages at family court is a program geared toward boosting self-esteem in 8- to 10-year-old girls. Field is also trying to bring to Philadelphia educators from a California company that educates mothers and fathers on difficult parenting issues.

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