This summer, East Palo Alto Academy Principal Amika Guillaume went with a police officer to visit the home of a credit-deficient summer school student, who happened to live across from the public charter high school on Myrtle Street. Standing outside the student's house, Guillaume saw another student sprint away from campus, notice her principal and then run back into school.
Though this home visit was more eventful than usual, it was helpful to have support from police, Guillaume said. This partnership between school and police is the mission of the school's anti-truancy program, launched with the East Palo Alto Police Department in 2016.
East Palo Alto Academy and the East Palo Alto Police Department created the program in response to a truancy rate that currently hovers at 20.2 percent, according to the California Department of Education. A student is classified as truant if they miss 30 minutes of instruction without an excuse more than three times during the school year; chronic truancy is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school days in one school year.
Police officers now regularly visit East Palo Alto Academy to talk to truant students and meet with administrators to talk about students who are at risk of not graduating. They also conduct home visits if a student continues to miss school.
East Palo Alto Police Officer Aleyda Romero said the program was conceived as an opportunity to frame conversations about truancy around the impact on students' opportunities after high school rather than legal consequences.
"We try to get them to finish school on the right track," Romero said.
East Palo Alto Academy has a set process for dealing with a truant student before involving the police. The school will make an automated call to the student's home, instructing him or her to come to school. If the student continues to be absent, the school social worker will review the student's attendance record and contact the family for a meeting.
"We try to connect with someone who knows the family so the family understands that we are coming from a place of concern," Guillaume said.
If the student still continues to miss school, a police officer will visit the school to talk with the student or go to his or her home with school personnel.
"If the police are there, the student will open the door," Guillaume said.
The principal said she hears from "frustrated' parents who understand the importance of regular attendance but can't get their child to go to school. She can now offer police officers as support for these parents, if needed.
In the last two years, the program has helped 32 truant youth out of East Palo Alto Academy's approximately 330 students, who are primarily Latino, low-income and on track to be the first in their families to attend college. The need to address truancy doesn't go away during the summer months: seven out of 110 students enrolled in the high school's Summer Bridge program for rising ninth-graders required a home visit involving police.
The number of truancy calls the school has had to make has gone down in recent years, however. Guillaume attributed the decrease to the anti-truancy program creating greater understanding among students of the dangers of truancy.
Minerva Rebuelta, the mother of an East Palo Alto Academy junior, said she supports the program, particularly because of the effectiveness of law enforcement.
"It is good that police are involved," Rebuelta said. "The school needs to have enforcement. I know they think students are old enough but sometimes the kids are not focused enough."
Last August, the East Palo Alto City Council approved a $30,000 grant for the program to fund more frequent police visits at the high school -- every other week instead of once a month. Guillaume said the extra help from police officers prompted her to reach out to Menlo-Atherton High School, which is now part of the anti-truancy program.
For this new school year, Guillaume hopes to create a more methodical, streamlined process for dealing with truant students. The school's social worker planned to begin the year with home visits to get to know students and families and ensure that the police are only called if "the circumstances are grave or warrant it," she said.
Romero also expressed interest in having a school resource officer who would be dedicated to anti-truancy efforts.
Ultimately, the program is about partnering to support students, both school and police representatives said.
"It helps to be on the same team," Guillaume said.
Tara Madhav is a former Weekly intern.