On Land and in the Bay, Innovation Tackles Truancy

Courtney Williams's picture
Monday, December 5, 2011

On Monday morning, the start of the school week, five teenagers rowed toward the breakwater leading into San Francisco Bay.

“It’s so foggy you can’t even see the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Austin, a 17-year-old student at Downtown High School in Potrero Hill, as he worked the oars. When the students passed an old sailboat, their instructor, Jeff Rogers, told them it was built 120 years ago in Hunters Point.

“Hey,” Austin said. “My ’hood.”

If not for the boating expedition, Austin might have still been home, in bed, instead of in school. But on that day his classroom happened to be a sailboat. Before coming to Downtown, he was a chronic truant in the San Francisco school system, one of the thousands of students at risk of dropping out. Now he attends school about 80 percent of the time.

For decades, teachers and school districts have battled truancy, struggling to engage students who cope with economic hardship, community strife, domestic violence and drug abuse. Some students avoid school because they are not interested or because they are being bullied. But since 2008, in part because of programs like those at Downtown, the San Francisco district’s chronic truancy has dropped by 31 percent.

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