The task force driving the initiative doesn't contain parents, religious leaders or other grassroots community members, noted Victoria Bousquet, a parent leader with Coalition for Educational Justice.
"At what point do you intend to involve the community?" she asked during an interview with City Limits. "Is it going to be once the horse is out of the barn? Are you going to have any town hall meetings? How are these decisions going to be made?"
She and others said they fear the initiative might rely too heavily on interventions that are punitive, such as arresting students and launching child welfare investigations that could ultimately lead to the termination of parental rights. "I know part of this is let's get the parents, let's the community, let's get the police department," Bousquet said. "But we don't want to criminalize these children."
But John Feinblatt, the mayor's chief policy adviser and a member of the task force, says enforcement is not the focus.
"You don't have to put a group together like this if all you're going to do is arrest people," Feinblatt said in a phone interview. "That would be a pretty easy process. Why would you have Homeless Services at the table? Why would you have Health and Mental Hygiene at the table?"
Feinblatt was referring to the multiagency nature of the task force, which comprises the departments of education, police, health, homeless services and youth and community development as well as the Administration for Children's Services.
"Across the country departments of education and mayors and researchers are all talking about the fact that we need to make sure that we're as creative as possible to cut down on truancy and absenteeism," Feinblatt said, adding that the multi-agency approach was a reflection of a realization that "We can't work on this in silos. If we want to solve this we have to act like one city."
The reason the task force is restricted to city agencies, Feinblatt says, is because that's where the coordination problems are. "This begins with all the city agencies working together," he said. "But there's a parallel effort to get input from as many different stakeholders as possible."
The task force aims to roll out the out the first set of initiatives at the start of the 2010-2011 school year. According to a press release the mayor issued this month, the campaign will place a heavy emphasis on providing additional social services to chronically absent students and their families. The press release said the campaign will develop several new protocols: one for strengthening school partnerships with community-based organizations, with service providers and with law enforcement; one for engaging and supporting chronically absent and truant students and families; and one for using absenteeism data to alert parents/guardians and other necessary stakeholders about absences.
The campaign also aims to develop data-driven models for identifying and responding to students and schools at greatest risk of chronic absenteeism, the press release said, and to strengthen NYC's current truancy-related policies and practices.
Nearly 20 percent of city elementary school students missed one month of school or more last year, according to the mayor's press release. Most of the local schools with the highest rates of chronic absence are predominantly black or Latino, low-income schools, a 2008 report by the Center for New York City Affairs shows.
The absences, even in kindergarten and first grade, increase children's chance of failing, the report says, and drag down the performance of their classmates who lose instructional time when teachers repeat material or divert their attention to the absent.
The task-force has been making good faith efforts to avoid designing protocols that would penalize parents and students whose attendance could be improved through non-punitive means, said three experts the city has consulted about its plan.
Some students, especially the middle and high school students, do cut classes and engage in mischief. And some parents are too high on drugs or otherwise incapacitated to ensure that their young children get to school. But some students miss school because they are homeless or have health or transportation problems.
Threatening all these families with unnecessary legal action can do more harm than good, said Mariajose Romero, senior research associate at the National Center for Children in Poverty. "There is a role for the courts, but it has to be the very, very last straw," she said. "It has to be the last resort, when nothing can be done, because it creates tremendous animosity and tremendous mistrust and you cannot educate children in an atmosphere of mistrust."
Feinblatt agrees. Of calling in child welfare or the police, he said: "It's not the first thing you want to do. It's not the second thing you want to do. It's probably not the third or fourth or fifth thing you want to do. At some point when other things have failed you have to look at whether there are ways to engage families and kids when you really feel kids are in danger."
Broadly, there are four types of reforms that school systems can implement to combat chronic absenteeism and truancy, Romero said. They can strengthen their community policing and court system. They can increase student and family support services. They can mobilize the community to address the issue. And they can reorganize and reform the schools themselves.
The experts all recommended that the task force focus on funneling additional services to students and their families via partnerships with community-based organizations. The task force is very receptive to this advice, the experts said. "They're very tuned into the message that we carried and that others have been talking about," said Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs.