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Parents paid to join patrols in truancy drive

UNITED STATES

schools are rounding up truants with renewed urgency under the Bush administration's strict new accountability regime.

The clamp-down has been powered by the No Child Left Behind education reform Act, which has sanctioned the publication of schools' test scores and allowed parents to transfer their children from underperforming schools.

In Philadelphia, 250 parents have been enlisted to patrol communities to catch truants.

The truancy rate is fairly typical of American cities at 6 per cent - around 12,500 pupils a day. In run-down schools more than a quarter of pupils go absent without leave.

Parents began their beats last week, making home visits and hooking families up with social service agencies.

The "foot soldiers", as they are dubbed, receive $8 (pound;5) to $10 an hour and put in 20 to 30-hour weeks. Recorded phone messages are sent to the homes of no-show pupils, and police patrol the truants' favourite haunts.

In Minneapolis, a recent survey found that pupils with 95 per cent attendance were more than twice as likely to pass Minnesota's reading and maths tests than those turning up under 85 per cent of the time.

The state's education officials view truancy as a gateway into delinquency and have made boosting attendance a project for courts, probation service, social services and law enforcement, as well as schools.

The authority convenes so-called School Attendance Review Boards, composed of representatives from these groups to meet errant students and their parents. After hammering out an action plan to get children back in class, families are assigned a case manager to monitor progress.

"Students can turn their behaviour around if they can make a personal connection," said Merle Bell-Gonzales, Minneapolis's co-ordinator of student attendance.

But if pupils fail to respond they are referred to the criminal justice system where sanctions may include a spell in juvenile detention or going to foster families.

In California, where review boards were pioneered, truants and their families face stiffer penalties.

Los Angeles, which has one of America's most chronic truancy problems, hauled some 920 culprits and, in the case of younger pupils, 853 parents before the District Attorney in 2001-2.

Fines or jail-time are sometimes meted out to parents deemed responsible for their children's truancy. For the truants, many of whom are approaching school-leaving age, threatening to revoke their right to hold a driving licence is often considered an effective deterrent.

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