Shepherding truants back to classrooms; Volunteers have helped more than 300 pupils annually in Balto. County


Jean Gladden and Lois Balcer, both former school principals, never expected to spend their retirements coaxing truants out of bed in the morning to get them to school.

But they have become dedicated volunteers in a little-known program called "Project Attend," in which senior citizens recruited through the Baltimore County Department of Aging work with the Baltimore County school system to bring chronic truants back to school.

Gladden, 71, remembers the first day she volunteered three years ago.

Sitting in a courtroom with a family facing a juvenile justice official, she watched a police officer ask a middle school pupil to read aloud from Maryland's truancy law. Gladden said when she realized that the pupil couldn't read the law, she thought to herself: "Here's someplace where I can make a difference."

Gladden and Balcer are among 16 senior citizens who volunteer for the program that works with children in sixth through ninth grades at 39 county schools, said Bob Kane, another retired teacher and administrator who trains volunteers.

He estimates that the program has helped 300 to 400 truant students each year.

The involvement of senior citizens has been key in maintaining daily contact with families of truant students, said Rick Sarfino, a pupil personnel worker for Baltimore County Schools.

"They have the desire to help children, and that's what it's all about. They're crucial," said Sarfino, who has worked with the program since its inception in 1994.

Gladden, who retired as principal of Middlesex Elementary School in Essex in 1993, had worked as a special education teacher. Balcer, who retired as principal of Fort Garrison Elementary School in 1996, was a reading specialist.

They do their work, they note, strictly by phone. After an initial meeting, the job involves no face-to-face contact with children or parents.

Each school morning, they call their assigned schools -- Stemmers Run Middle and Middle River Middle -- for the names of truants who have not signed in at their schools' offices.

By 9 a.m., Gladden and Balcer are on the phone, cajoling and beseeching pupils and their parents.

"Sometimes kids are still in bed when we call, and they answer the phone," said Balcer. "The smarter ones just let the phone ring."

Gladden said that with "the very hard-core kids, the parents will call police and the police department will volunteer to get them out of bed." The presence of a police officer at the door can cause enough embarrassment to send some youngsters back to school for quite a while, she said.

The two women know from their work in special education and reading that many truants have histories of academic problems or learning disabilities that have not been addressed.

"These are children who are disconnected," said Balcer. "They don't feel comfortable in school."

The women also said that many truants come from single-parent families, where the parent might have left for work before the child needs to be coaxed from bed.

Gladden and Balcer measure their success by the number of children they never have to call again. Their teaching backgrounds, they say, prepared them to understand the needs of many truants, and often they intervene to find extra academic support for these children.

The two said their former profession is not a prerequisite for the volunteer job -- but it has its advantages.

When Gladden met one new truant, the boy recognized her from her days as a principal and said, "Not you again." She replied, "If you want to get rid of me, just come to school."

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