And in the most extreme cases, when those supportive measures fail, "there is a stick," said Karen Webber-Ndour, executive director of student support and safety for the Baltimore schools.

"We do take the parents to court for neglect when students are chronically absent," Webber-Ndour said.

A total of 132 court cases were filed last year, said Baltimore school officials, who added that they are moving to de-emphasize court intervention.

Home visits

Around Illinois and across the country, a common thread runs through many anti-truancy initiatives: Outreach workers visit the homes of absent elementary students, try to decipher why they're not attending and then help those families overcome the barriers.

The Chicago Public Schools dismissed its army of truancy officers in a 1992 cost-cutting measure, but the home visits don't necessarily have to be made by school employees, experts say. One example of that approach is taking place in Logan Square at Kelvyn Park High School.

Maricela Hernandez and Reyna Romero tapped on the window of a ramshackle wood frame home on a recent freezing morning. From inside the house, a gruff voice shouted, "What?" and then the father of a truant youth swung the door open, scowled and cursed.

Unruffled and polite, Hernandez and Romero displayed the plastic cards identifying them as "parent mentors" from the school.

Paid by the neighborhood association for five hours of work a day, they often labor into the afternoons at the massive red-brick schoolhouse, writing reports and preparing for the next day's visits.

The women always pair up for safety. Hernandez takes the wheel of her dark green Blazer as the women drive from home to home.

They have visited about 100 families in the last month and say that in most cases, they succeeded in at least getting the youth and his or her parents to the school to meet with the attendance clerk.

"Sometimes the house is dark or the address isn't right," Romero said. In those cases, the women comb the nearby streets, checking laundromats and homeless shelters, and call the truant's relatives.

"You can't just make a visit and say, that's it," Hernandez said. "You have to keep following these kids and find out what they need, and get the parent to come in to the school and win that trust."

They recently found a Kelvyn Park sophomore and his family huddled in a boarded-up bungalow without utilities. "From the outside, it looked completely empty," Hernandez said. The father, an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant, was out of work and raising the 16-year-old boy and a second son alone.

She said that they were able to help the family get food and clothing. "When they don't have food, clothes and jobs, school becomes secondary," Hernandez said.

State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, said she is uncomfortable with parent outreach workers because families often need services that can be marshaled only by credentialed social workers or school professionals.

"I want truant officers back in the schools — not just to find the children, but to bring them services," Flowers said.

But Terry Spradlin, who helps run an educational policy institute at Indiana University, said there can be a benefit to the peer-to-peer relationship as long as the parent outreach workers have proper training.

For their part, Hernandez and Romero say they tap the neighborhood association to connect families to food pantries, donated clothes and free legal services. "The resources are there, but the parents don't know how to access the resources," Romero said.

Going to court