Saturday, June 17, 2006


The percentage of kids who skip school in the Omaha Public Schools is more than twice as high as the statewide average. It's a no-brainer that absenteeism is a huge reason for the lower test scores in OPS. If you're not there, how can you learn? Yet no one seems to be focusing on the obvious truancy problems in OPS, as the whole state remains up in arms about what to do to close the achievement gap for inner-city kids.

Maybe we should KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid. Instead of spending billions and completely revamping the governance of districts and attendance areas in the Omaha metropolitan area through a whole new "learning community," we could spend about $200,000 and have a first-class marketing program to pinpoint why kids aren't in school, and do something to radically turn that around.

Maybe we should take a page from the San Diego Unified School District. They estimate that absenteeism cost that district $25 million last school year. A big reason: funding is based on attendance, instead of pure enrollment. That's one major change Nebraska could and probably should make to "incentivize" OPS to get with the program and attack truancy proactively.

But there are other things that OPS and the whole community could be doing, that don't cost all that much but have a huge payoff for kids. In San Diego, they're launching a huge new push to boost attendance anywhere it falls beneath 95% with cheap and easy strategies:

-- Free bags and beach balls emblazoned with 9.05.06, reminding students to return to school Sept. 5. That's typically a poorly-attended day, but this year there will be prizes.

-- During the school year, fliers, stickers, magnets, banners and public-service announcements constantly remind parents and students about the importance of school attendance.

-- Monthly bicycle raffles for which only students who have had perfect attendance are eligible.

-- Merchants and health-care professionals are reinforcing the message.

-- School police will step up truancy sweeps, from several times a year, to daily.

-- The district is setting up a truancy center, where those playing hooky will be sent for class once they are picked up on the street.

The campaign is being funded by outside money. The district has $200,000 left from a $600,000 Annie E. Casey Foundation grant, and is using part of that money. It's also seeking donations from other sponsors.

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