Social worker Miriam Torres stands at the front line of East Palo Alto’s Anti-Truancy Pilot Program, the city’s latest attempt to reduce violence using taxpayer dollars. With a caseload of 123 students, some would argue that Torres is the front line.
Seven years after voters approved Measure C, a parcel tax intended to make East Palo Alto safer, the City Council has started to work with the Sequoia Union High School District and the Ravenswood City School District in a first-time collaboration to confront truancy. They are racing the clock: In 2017, the tax expires.
Voters approved Measure C based on the promise that half of this tax money – totaling about $700,000 a year — would finance public safety measures and the other half would fund violence prevention programs. However, according to city documents from 2009 through this fiscal year, far more money has gone to public safety, essentially to the Police Department.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars collected for violence prevention programs are still unspent.
For the 2012-13 fiscal year, for example, $489,813 of Measure C money went to the Police Department and $100,000 to “Family and Youth Services.” This current fiscal year, the trend is reversing, with $571,241 for youth services compared with $419,579 for public safety.
Mayor Ruben Abrica explained that public safety has been getting most of its yearly allotment because the city’s Police Department is not only a known entity but also has clear lines of accountability for how the money gets spent.
Prior to the anti-truancy pilot program with the two school districts, community organizations mostly sought the violence prevention funds in the form of small grants, Abrica said. Some of those groups had well-established projects and specific proposals. Others, he said, were vague enough to give city officials pause.
“We didn’t want to give a whole lot of money, especially when groups were not prepared to do a lot,” Abrica said. He added that crime reduction was most pressing while prevention was viewed as a longer-term, “softer” approach.
But the mayor acknowledged that the city could have been more efficient in allocating Measure C money. Last year, with the help of an outside consultant, the council decided to divide 90 percent of the remaining Measure C violence prevention funds into three areas: education and youth services; support for families of at-risk youth; and re-entry assistance for people just out of jail or prison. The remaining 10 percent will be used for smaller grants.
“The money will be spent,” Abrica said. “We’ve just got to stay on top of it and make sure there are no delays.”
The anti-truancy program falls under the first strategy. This school year, the city will spend $98,800 on the pilot, which enabled the hiring of Torres.
Since starting in late May, Torres has worked with the Sequoia Union High School District and the Ravenswood City School District to identify the 123 students at-risk for truancy. Special attention is being paid to eighth- and ninth-graders with 10 or more school absences, as well as tenth-graders with 20 or more absences during the last school year.
So far, Torres said she has met with more than 20 families, connecting them to resources such as legal aid, financial literacy and housing. She plans to complete family visits by December.
“They’re embracing the program,” Torres said of the community reaction. “They know we’re here with the intention of helping the students…they know that they can call me regarding anything.”
In the past, the Sequoia district handled truancy by calling students’ homes and sending monthly letters to families. Alvaro Calderon, administrative vice principal of Woodside High School, said his school offers counseling for students, but the services are of no use to students who do not attend school. He believes Torres’ meetings will better address individual student needs.
Torres faces numerous challenges, he said. While she plans to schedule meetings with students on school grounds, the Sequoia district’s geography may limit her effectiveness. Since all East Palo Alto students do not attend the same high school, Torres will have to travel to different cities, reducing the amount of time she can spend on each campus.
Calderon also worries about her caseload.
“A case manager with 60 students, that’s manageable,” he said. “A case manager with 100 students, how effective can you be?”
Johnnie Gray Jr., founder of the East Palo Alto Boxing Club, is a longtime vocal critic of how the city has used Measure C money. He believes the funds were intended for community organizations, not for school districts.
Gray said the most effective way to fight crime is to fund after-school programs that “keep young people off the streets.”
Mayor Abrica, on the other hand, said the school pilot program allows for a more coordinated and targeted approach to preventing violence. The city intends to incorporate community organizations into the new program down the road, he said.
East Palo Alto’s focus on truancy coincides with the California Attorney General’s recent report describing truancy as a “crisis” in the state. According to the report, about 1 million elementary school students were truant in the 2012-2013 academic year. San Mateo County had a truancy rate of 12.9 percent; the highest rates were in San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz counties, both around 30 percent.
Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent James Lianides emphasized that adjustments would be made along the way “so [Torres] has something she can manage…and…can reach as many students as she can without spreading herself thin.”