Bounty-hunters cash in on truants

28th February 1997 at 00:00
UNITED STATES. School officials in the north-western state of Oregon have found a novel, but effective way of catching truants: they've put a price on their heads.

The tiny Central Linn School District pays a pair of modern "bounty-hunters" $1,000 (Pounds 620) for every drop-out they track down who returns to finish school.

All 49 drop-outs who have been caught since last spring are still in school, except for eight who have already graduated. Eighteen are to receive degrees this spring.

This is despite the fact that school is compulsory only to the age of 16, and there is no legal requirement that those who leave return.

"Of the students that we contact, 99 per cent of them value their education highly," said Marie Ekenberg, one of the district's two "learning opportunity co-ordinators" who are paid to sniff out truants.

"What we do is invite them back, we personalise their education, we support them in any way we can. Most of them are glad to have another opportunity. "

A former school cafeteria worker, Ms Ekenberg became a bounty-hunter after her own daughter started skipping school.

Now she and her best friend, Donna Bronson, earn $100 for every missing student they track down, $100 more if the truant promises to finish school, another $300 for monitoring the student's progress and a $500 bonus when the student graduates.

The women have been known to get students out of bed to go to school and have tutored several in their homes - and at least one in jail.

"If a student has had a bad experience in school, maybe he needs to step back, look at things and start again," Ms Ekenberg said. "Once they've been out for a while, they're probably very aware of the limitations for people who don't have an education."

Paying a bounty for truants is not entirely altruistic. Since the district receives $4,800 from the state for every student who completes the school year, it comes out ahead even after paying Ms Bronson and Ms Ekenberg their fee.

In some urban areas of the country, 12 per cent of students are absent on any given day and 70 per cent of the absences are unexcused, according to the Department of Education. Since it started paying bounties, Central Linn has lowered its drop-out rate to 3.5 per cent.

"These young people are ready to succeed," said the school system's superintendent, John Dallum.

"And when you offer them an opportunity to succeed, they grab it. There are no bad kids. At the tender age of 18, you show me a soul that is irredeemably rotten. We cannot throw them away."

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