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New center aims to reduce number of students skipping school

Mayor Bloomberg’s latest effort to reduce the number of students skipping school is a truancy center housed in West Harlem’s Police Athletic League, one of the city’s 20 nonprofit youth development centers.

The center — which will include staff from the Department of Education, the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and the Police Athletic League — will offer Manhattan students services such as academic tutoring, mental health counseling, and school-based mentors.

The center reflects a more coordinated borough-wide approach than the city has used so far to help students stay in school. Since launching the anti-truancy initiative in 2010 amid reports that 20 percent of city students were “chronically absent,” or missed school more than 20 percent of the time, the city has sent letters home to parents, used celebrity wake-up calls, and paired students with in-school mentors to cut down on absenteeism. This year, 22,000 fewer students met the threshold for chronic absenteeism, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said today.

But those initiatives fell short of representing a comprehensive strategy for helping individual students, city officials said today.

“Police have always been able to pick up kids and sometimes return them to the school that they were at or drop them off at some central facility,” said John Feinblatt, a chief policy advisor to Bloomberg who has spearheaded the anti-truancy efforts.

“The real difference here is that once we identify a kid and identify that this is a real problem, chronic absenteeism, we have got all the resources here under this roof to try and work with that kid, work with his family, assign him a mentor, then work with the school that the kid’s from,” Feinblatt added.

The center will have space for up to 1,000 students who they can be sent there by their schools, their probation officers, police who pick them up on the street while they are supposed to be at school. Students can also choose to participate in PAL’s “Saturday Night Lights,” which targets at-risk youth. Then the staff will find different ways to solve the student’s absenteeism problems, which include assigning a student to an advocate at the center who will collaborate with a school-based mentor and providing training to parents on how to monitor their child’s attendance electronically.

“It’s got to start with figuring out who this kid is, diagnosing the problem, and then putting the partnerships in place that will make a difference,” Feinblatt said.

Leslie Cornfeld, the mayor’s primary advisor on truancy, said the Police Athletic League engagement center is a pilot that could be expanded citywide in the future, “if the outcomes are as we hope they are.”

To fund the center’s expanded services, the city is redirecting most of the $400,000 given annually to the Manhattan district attorney’s office by the Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator, another division of the city’s justice system. Officials said getting more students to attend school regularly would cut down on crime.

“Removing juveniles from the street and returning them to school decreases the likelihood that they will become either the perpetrators or victims of crime,” Kelly said. He also noted that there were fewer major crimes reported in schools last year than in any year since Bloomberg took office. Felony crimes were down 14 percent and arrests were down 34 percent, he said.

The city’s most recent anti-truancy initiative, the Success Mentor Program, reached more than 8,000 at-risk students last year and resulted in more than 80,000 additional days of school attended, according to the Department of Education. Students mentored through this program are 52 percent more likely to remain in school, officials said.

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