Andrew Heller had so perfected the art of skipping class, he managed to spend only 15 full days in school during the second semester of last year.
After his mother dropped him off at Red Bank Middle School, the 14-year-old said he would mosey to breakfast, show his face to a few other students and teachers, then sneak out the back door and head home for some rest and relaxation.
"My mom only found out when report cards came out, and I made a bunch of excuses about why I was missing class," said Andrew, now an eighth-grader at Red Bank Middle.
Last school year, Andrew was one of 19,000 students who had at least six unexcused absences. State law defines a student as truant when they miss more than five days.
Of the state's five largest school systems, Hamilton County ranked the highest for truancy last year, according to state data.
But so far this year, efforts to boost student attendance appear to be working. Figures from the first semester show 6,139 students were truant. That compares to 9,265 truant students during the same time last year, said Sheryl Randolph, director of student services for the school system.
"An increase in attendance of this size doesn't happen by accident. It required a lot of work," she said.
The issue was highlighted in February when the city's Crime Task Force Report linked truancy, crime and overall public safety. That's about the time leaders from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, police department and judicial branches began brainstorming ways to reduce truancy.
"We've been looking at a way to fix the hole in the roof rather than putting out the buckets to catch the water," said District Attorney Bill Cox, who sits on the panel that's studying the issue.
The system set a goal of reducing truancy by 20 percent this year, Ms. Randolph said. Adjusted for a systemwide loss of 600 students this year, the county has reduced truancy by about 8 percent, according to a report presented to the Board of Education in February. Removing the enrollment decline, the reduction is 34 percent.
Ms. Randolph said she is confident the district will reach its goal by year end.
LaMarcus Smith, 14, another Red Bank Middle schooler, credits his improved school attendance and grades to the YMCA's Y-CAP program that provides afterschool tutoring and mentoring.
"I was making all F's, but now I have two B's, two C's and an A. It helps us be successful and not be in the streets," LaMarcus said.
Andrew's mother, a single mom who relocated to Chattanooga with her son last year, said the school system could benefit from more programs like Y-CAP.
"Andrew just didn't fit in at school, but this program has given him self-esteem and helped him in so many ways," Dani Heller said.
HELP FOR HOWARD
To tackle truancy systemwide, administrators implemented a plan to warn parents when students were approaching truant status. At the fourth absence, school leaders call in parents for an informal meeting to tell them of their child's absences.
"We've been very successful at involving parents, taking proactive steps to prevent truancy. Even if the parents don't show up, they've been warned, and many times the absences stop there," Ms. Randolph said.
On the sixth absence, parents are called back, but this time it's an informal meeting with school leaders and representatives from the Hamilton County Juvenile Court. Since truancy is a crime, parents are warned about the legal implications - for both parents and children - if their child misses class.
At Howard School of Academics and Technology, the state forced further action to address a dismal graduation rate. The school pushed back the start time from 7 to 9 a.m. The school also had to dedicate one full-time social worker to track absent and tardy students. College interns also helped, Ms. Randolph said.
Howard's truancy rate this year dropped significantly, school figures show. Howard had the most marked turnaround - 18 percent of students were truant in the first semester, an improvement of 66 percent over last year, figures show.
School leaders, while pleased with the improvement, say more work is needed.
"We like to get down to zero truancies, and that would be the case in perfect world, but we don't live in that world," Ms. Randolph said. "But on the way to zero, you've got to pass all these numbers along the way."
AT THE YMCA
A YMCA program that features lots of one-on-one attention, counseling, after-school tutoring and activities is a model that could be expanded, its founder said.
Joe Smith said the YMCA Community Action Program is successful with nearly all students who enter the program. Most students referred to Y-CAP, which also operates in Cleveland, are truants, he said.
His staff of four counselors works with about 20 students over three months. They track students' attendance and then offer after-school tutoring and provide physical activity at the Downtown YMCA, Mr. Smith said. There is no charge to students.
Y-CAP staff call schools to make sure students show up for class. If they don't, a staff member goes to the student's home and takes him to school, a labor-intensive approach that Andrew's mother, Ms. Heller swears by.
"If he misses class, (Y-CAP employees) will find out. They will go and sit with him and make sure he attends if they have to," she said.
Mr. Smith said all of his program graduates improve their attendance and grades. Outside studies that tracked Y-CAP graduates for 10 years show a 90 percent high school graduation rate, compared to a 73 percent graduation rate countywide.
Y-CAP leaders said their model could be applied elsewhere, but like many intervention programs, it comes with a cost.
The Y-CAP budget for the Hamilton and Bradley county programs is about $200,000, which comes from the YMCA, federal and state grants and contributions.
"There's no doubt it could work throughout the county," Mr. Smith said. "We have limited resources, however, so there's only so much we can do."
SOLUTIONS AT A PRICE
Mr. Smith's program is one of the darlings of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court, which refers problem cases to Y-CAP regularly, said Chris Albright, Juvenile Court administrator.
"I'll be the first to tell you that I brag on Joe Smith everywhere I go ... but it's manpower intensive, and how much of that can a community afford?" Mr. Albright said.
That's the question school system officials and others with a stake in the issue are trying to answer. With state, county and city governments trimming expenses in the face of the recession, and the school district facing a $20 million deficit, most agree that more funding to expand programs, hire more social workers or shift school start times won't be available.
Each of the school district's 16 social workers earns on average $62,000 a year including benefits, said school system spokeswoman Danielle Clarke.
Having uniform start times across the system that are in line with Howard would require more bus routes. Previous estimates suggest the county would need to purchase 17 more school buses to make that happen, according to newspaper archives. That would cost about $425,000.
"It has been on the radar for a long time as an important issue, but we need to put it at the top and make it as important as some of the other things," said Jeffrey Wilson, District 5 school board member who also is a juvenile probation officer.
The Chattanooga Hamilton County Safe Policies Committee, which consists of representatives from across the county and city, including Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper and Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey, has isolated truancy as a key to stopping gang activity.
Judge Bailey said long-term goals could focus on getting more social workers, but for now they are looking for affordable solutions.
"Any agency could do more if they had more people, but now the key is to make sure every dollar expended is not wasted or duplicated," Judge Bailey said.
She said a truancy center - a clearinghouse where truant students could be dropped off after being apprehended by police - could be cheap and staffed with existing employees from the court, sheriff's office and city police department without making a big dent any one agency's budget.
"If a school official or a police officer locates one of these juveniles, the officer doesn't need to be tied up verifying the child's identity all day," Judge Bailey said. "They could take the child to the center and our various staffs can free the officers up to do what they need to be doing."
Judge Bailey said the panel's efforts have opened dialogue between the legal system and the schools that had been lacking previously.
"We all want to think we are doing the very best we can, but in the past our issues were a matter of needing to do a better job talking," she said. "Now we just need to not talk about what we can't do and focus on what we can do to solve this problem."