Yo! That's Phat! Street Smart Truancy Program Gets Kids Back in School
The Boston Police Department (BPD) developed a model truancy intervention program for middle and high school students in Boston and documented the program's development. The project was an extension of the Boston Strategy to Prevent Youth Violence a major youth initiative developed in the 1990s by a coalition of the police, community and youth workers, local clergy, and educators.
Under this grant, the BPD subcontracted with the Boston YMCA to develop and implement a truancy project to prevent future youth involvement with crime. Mediawrights, a Boston communications firm, was subcontracted to document the development process and handle other communications functions.
The program created by the Boston YMCA called PHAT (Promoting Higher Attendance Team) employed a case management team to work alongside the police to identify truant youth and connect them with counselors and other community services they needed. Among the program's accomplishments:
- PHAT created a database of approximately 500 truant Boston youth and developed 145 active cases. PHAT team members screened these youth for substance abuse and assessed their need for substance abuse and other services, monitored school attendance, and offered career development workshops. Of the students who accepted services, half returned to school or were placed in alternative education programs.
- PHAT caseworkers identified the leading causes for truancy through interviews with students and their parents or guardians. Reasons included lack of interest in school; pregnancy, illness, or job conflict; and hanging around with "bad influences."
An article and an editorial on the project appeared in the Boston Globe. With the end of the grant, PHAT did not continue, but parts of the program have been incorporated into other ongoing community coalitions and school initiatives.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supported the project with a $262,162 grant.
In response to rising rates of youth homicide in the 1990s, the BPD joined forces with a coalition of community and youth workers, local clergy, and educators to form the Boston Strategy to Prevent Youth Violence.
Through a variety of initiatives, this collaboration helped reduce the number of youth homicides by 83 percent between 1988 and 1997. The coalition then turned its efforts to prevention, specifically addressing youth truancy, which they had found to be an early indicator of future problems with drugs and violence. One study, for example, found that 60 percent of youth facing truancy-related actions in Boston Juvenile Court later became involved in the criminal justice system.
In 1998, the BPD, along with the Boston school superintendent, convened the Boston Strategy to Improve Student Attendance (START) to develop effective truancy interventions. START was a continuation of the youth violence prevention program and included most of the program's original partners. The coalition received two earlier grants from RWJF (ID#s 034184 and 034914) to produce two documentary videos and a Web site about the youth violence prevention program. (See Grant Results on ID# 034184.)
This grant from RWJF supported the development of a model truancy intervention program for middle and high school students in Boston, Mass., and documentation of the program's development. The project's major objectives were:
- To identify chronically truant youth who needed immediate intervention to remain or re-engage in school or job-related activities.
- To provide case management services and referral for needed services to these youth to prevent them from becoming involved in the criminal justice system.
- To document the development of the program as a guide for replication.
The BPD subcontracted with the Boston YMCA to develop and implement the program and with Mediawrights, a Boston communications firm, to conduct documentation and communications activities.
- The Boston YMCA developed and implemented PHAT, a truancy intervention program featuring a case management approach. PHAT employed a team of caseworkers to work alongside police to identify truant youth and connect them with the services they needed. (The acronym was taken from the street slang "phat" or "fat" [which means good or cool] to appeal to youth.) Among the program's key features:
- The PHAT team included a program coordinator, a substance abuse counselor, a job counselor, and a nonprofessional community volunteer who "worked the streets." PHAT identified students through "truancy sweeps" on the streets by police and the program team and through referrals from schools and youth service agencies and programs.
- Using a case management approach, the team referred students to professional counselors; connected them to a network of community services; and helped coordinate the services they received.
- Team members spoke with students, contacted their parents, and monitored students' attendance for 30 days (giving wake-up calls and calls to the home if the student was absent). They also screened for substance abuse problems and offered alternative education placements and/or job counseling for students who could not successfully return to school.
- Caseworkers also intervened on behalf of PHAT participants facing truancy-related expulsion from school.
- Later in the project, PHAT began offering career development workshops and developed summer employment opportunities for students with truancy problems.
- As of June 2000, PHAT had created a database of approximately 500 truant Boston youth and had 145 active cases from among the city's 150 schools across four communities: Mattapan, South Boston, East Boston, and Jamaica Plain. (According to the project director, the relatively low number of active cases resulted from such factors as legal obstacles and the unwillingness of students to participate.)Of the students who accepted services, half returned to school or were placed in alternative education programs, the project director reported.
- In interviews with students and their parents, PHAT identified a number of reasons for the students' truancy. According to the caseworkers' records, the leading factors cited by the students were: "Not interested in school, teachers unsupportive, work is uninteresting" (35 percent); miscellaneous causes, including pregnancy, illness, and a job conflict (20 percent); "school is unsafe and/or too far away" (14 percent); and "friends also skip school/hanging out with bad influences" (8 percent). Parents' responses were ranked as follows: "Child is not interested in school" (32 percent); "child is hanging around with bad influences" (21 percent); family troubles, including separation, problems with siblings (11 percent); and overcrowded schools and unhelpful teachers (11 percent).
An article and an editorial on the project appeared in the Boston Globe. Information about START and the PHAT program is included on the Boston Strategy Web site, www.bostonstrategy.com (no longer available). Mediawrights completed a 15-page report on the START and PHAT initiatives for the BPD. It documents the extent of the truancy problem and the intervention work being done by the START coalition and its members. (See the Bibliography for more details.)
- Schools are not a reliable source for identifying truant students. Because records of school attendance were inconsistent and incomplete across teachers and schools, identification of truant students depended largely on programs outside the school, such as police sweeps and youth agency records.
- Interventions to reduce truancy are more effective when the program uses facilities in the students' schools or communities rather than large "truancy centers."
- The term "truancy" is inadequate to describe the issue of nonattendance at school. The project director stressed that children and young people miss school for different reasons at different ages. "Sometimes they aren't in school because they have to take care of younger siblings while a parent works," he said. "They aren't criminals or potential criminals."
- Many schools lack the structures or personnel to support students returning to school or work after extended periods of truancy or absence.
AFTER THE GRANT
With the end of the RWJF grant, the PHAT program was discontinued. Parts of the program have been incorporated in other ongoing START and school initiatives. START has had discussions with Harvard University to assist with an evaluation of the program.
GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION
Reducing Substance Abuse and Violence by Identifying and Intervening With At-Risk Truant Youth
City of Boston, Boston Police Department (Boston, MA)
Dates: May 1999 to November 2000
James T. Jordan
(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)
Mediawrights Production Company, Report on the Boston Strategy to Improve Youth Attendance and the YMCA of Greater Boston Promoting Higher Attendance Team, 19992000. Prepared for the Boston Police Department Office of Strategic Planning. Cambridge, Mass.: Mediawrights Production Company, 2000.
Brochures and Fact Sheets
"Promoting Higher Attendance Team (PHAT)," Boston Police Department and the YMCA of Greater Boston.
"Coalition Sees Connection between Truancy, Crime," in the Boston Globe, September 5, 2000.
"Tracking Truants," in the Boston Globe, October 2, 2000.
Report prepared by: Jan Hempel
Reviewed by: Patricia Patrizi
Reviewed by: Richard Camer
Program Officer: Floyd K. Morris