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Unique Morada program takes on school truancy

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Posted: Thursday, March 4, 2004 10:00 pm

MORADA - When Morada Middle School student Sadie Baldon grows up, she wants to be a lawyer.

The only thing stopping the eighth-grade student is her school attendance.

From Jan. 12 to the middle of February, Sadie missed school eight times, and it's always been unexcused.

Her truancy was so bad, Sadie, 14, had to plead her case to a judge.

But instead of going to court, the court came to Sadie and about 12 other Morada Middle School students.

Every Thursday for the past four weeks, Sadie and other Morada Middle School students who are considered habitually truant have met with the principal, a judge, a police officer from the Stockton Police Department and officials from the school district and the Community Partnership of San Joaquin.

For one hour per week, in the school library, students and parents meet with San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Richard Vliavianos, Morada Middle School Principal Stephen Takemoto, Virginia Jimenez of the Community Partnership of San Joaquin County, Lauren Bell of the school district's Child Welfare and Attendance Office and Stockton Police Officer Jennifer McCutchen.

The idea behind the 10-week program - the first of its kind in the state - is to stop the problem of truancy before it becomes too engrained in a student's school life. This is done by encouraging the positives in a student's life, Takemoto said.

And if the program is successful, it will be expanded throughout the county.

In most truancy programs, punishment is used to force a student to comply with attendance rules, Takemoto said.

With the court truancy program, no one dwells on the negative. Instead, the positives are re-enforced with rewards - such as movie tickets - and encouragement through applause.

On Thursday, students and parents waited for Vliavianos to arrive. They had been sitting in the library for about five minutes.

When Takemoto announced the judge's arrival, everyone had to stand and then come to order - just like in court.

The idea behind Vliavianos' full dress robe, announcement of his arrival and court rules, was to duplicate the court's setting, said Bob Gire, with Child Welfare and Attendance office at the Lodi Unified School District. It's also why officer McCutchen was there, he said.

And just like real court, each student had a file, complete with a record of accomplishments and some misdeeds.

"It adds an official aspect to it," he said.

Vliavianos started the proceedings by asking for homework assignments or if any student had something to share.

Without a volunteer offering to share anything, Vliavianos began court.

Unfortunately, Sadie was the first one called.

She leaned over the table, almost whispering to Vliavianos, afraid that others in the court would hear that she had a referral this week.

Vliavianos asked why the referral. "I cussed at a teacher," she said.

"What did you accomplish by doing this?" Vliavianos asked.

Sadie quietly admitted that someone else egged her on.

The judge asked her if it would have been better if she had not said anything. It's the last time the subject was broached.

From that point on, Vliavianos pointed to Sadie's accomplishments in class and school: Sadie's getting serious about being a good student, she gets along well with her teachers and other students, she's a very capable student and her reading and writing skills are improving.

A round of applause broke out for Sadie.

Next is Nicholas Blumer, who's also had a referral.

Vliavianos wanted to know the reason for the referral.

"I called a teacher by her first name," he told the judge. "She got mad."

Why, Vliavianos asked? Like Sadie, he said it was based on someone urging him.

"Was that a smart decision?" Vliavianos asked. Will he do it again if he's pushed again?

Nicholas swears he won't.

Instead of dwelling longer, everyone is told of Nicholas' accomplishments and teacher's comments.

Nicholas is studying for a makeup test he missed in science, no assignments have been missed, and he's asked to be a teacher's assistant.

The applause began as Nicholas walked back to his seat.

The only transgression Elizabeth Fuentes had against her was one day absent without an excuse.

Her mother explained to the judge that Elizabeth overslept and then didn't want to go to school.

What about an alarm clock, Vliavianos asked? Will it be necessary for the court to get an alarm clock for mom, he wanted to know?

Takemoto told Elizabeth she needs to drag herself out of bed and get to school.

That's the end of the discussion on Elizabeth's minor problem. Now it was time to discuss the good things she's done in class, such as she's trying to do all her classwork and she's working on studying after school.

Takemoto later said that most of the students have experienced negatives in their lives and needed the positive reinforcements.

"We build up their self-esteem," he said.

It seems to be working. Not only are attitudes changing about school, but since the program began, six of the students enrolled in the program have had perfect attendance, he said.

While the program is based on drug courts, Takemoto said it is also heavily dependent on parent involvement.

"It's between the child and the school and the parent and the school," he said. "We want the parent and the child to feel good about the school."

And if there's a breakdown, a social worker goes to the home and meets with the family.

So far, the program works with volunteers, from the judge to the police officer to the Community Partnership involvement. But Vliavianos and Takemoto hope that eventually, funding will become available.

For now, Vliavianos said, the Morada school program is just a demonstration of what can be done. Next year, he said he hopes to expand it.

Is the program working? Sadie, in an interview after her court appearance, said it's helped her with her attendance.

Takemoto agreed. Her absenteeism rate has dropped by half, to where it's now four absences in four weeks.

And Sadie said it's also helped her behave in school.

"I haven't gotten in to trouble lately," she said.

Contact reporter Les Mahler at lmahler@sjnsnews.com.

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