CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Ann Doss Helms and Michael Gordon | The Charlotte Observer) - The father of a 15-year-old Harding High student stood in front of a judge, a Vietnamese interpreter at his side.
It was 131 days into the school year, and his son had missed 77 of them. A school social worker had visited the home three times, leaving notes in Vietnamese, but the parents hadn't responded.
Now Mecklenburg District Court Judge Paige McThenia was laying down the law: North Carolina requires parents to get their children to school. If children pile up more than 10 unexcused absences, parents can go to jail for 120 days.
"This is entirely unacceptable," McThenia said. "If you do not come into compliance with North Carolina law you will go to jail. Do you understand?"
In Charlotte, this courtroom is part of the quest to break the cycle of poverty and academic failure by holding parents accountable. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox recently reported shocking statistics on absences: At high-poverty high schools like Harding, roughly one-third of all students missed 18 or more days of class last school year.
That many absences, regardless of the cause, are labeled as "chronic absenteeism," which is considered a significant barrier to academic success.
Across CMS, about 19,700 students were chronically absent last year. Most of them were African-American, Hispanic and poor.
When those students flunk exams or drop out, their schools are labeled as failures. More important, the students' chances at a productive life dwindle.
Longtime Mecklenburg District Judge Lou Trosch says poor school performance serves as a portal into the criminal-justice system.
"Those struggles in class tend to spill over into skipping class, discipline problems, the wrong friends ... and eventually trouble in the community," Trosch said. "It becomes a vicious cycle that pulls kids down."
This city boasts a pioneering partnership between courts and public schools: For 17 years, judges have volunteered to go to schools and work with parents whose kids are missing too much time.
But the payoffs for these in-school programs have been minimal and the problems persistent. So the schools and courts are tuning up their approach. A new, intensified truancy court debuted March 29, with 30 of the most serious violators of North Carolina's school attendance law summoned to court.
Trosch says the message to parents is intended to be clear: "Both the reward and punishment are up to you. In extreme cases, you can spend some time in jail."
But there's a catch. No one believes jailing a parent helps a child. Even fines, which are also allowed under state law, are counterproductive when families are struggling.
So on March 29 McThenia handed out a series of stern warnings, coupled with orders for getting attendance back on track. The only arrest warrants issued were for four parents who didn't show up.
Even so, the approach has critics. Assistant Public Defender Leora Moreno calls it "deeply troubling" that CMS and the courts smack criminal charges on impoverished parents.
"Because they are poor, my clients' lives can be criminalized in every which way, so let's criminalize another piece of their lives by bringing them into court," Moreno said after a truancy case. "For someone with money, this would never happen."
Poverty starts derailing attendance early.
Parents who are facing eviction or working night shifts may not get their children to school every day. If the kids miss the bus, parents often lack transportation to get them there.
"Our parents want their kids at school and they want them to get an education," says Diane Curran, a social worker at Allenbrook Elementary. "Life gets in the way."
At Allenbrook, in west Charlotte, 18 percent of students were chronically absent last year. Curran tries to work with those parents to craft solutions.
If there's a medical problem, the school nurse can help — for instance, making sure asthma inhalers and other meds are available at school.
If a single mom is working until the wee hours and failing to get her kids ready for school, the school might make wake-up calls.
Carla Gaymon, Communities in Schools site coordinator at Allenbrook Elementary, awards a traveling trophy to the class with the best monthly attendance. For the fourth month in a row Katie Magee's fifth-graders won.(Credit: John D.Simmons | The Charlotte Observer)
Communities in Schools, a dropout prevention program, works to get the kids excited about being in school. Allenbrook site coordinator Carla Gaymon awards a trophy to the class that has the best attendance each month.
'You don't want to see me in a robe'
In-school "truancy courts" offer a sort of "scared straight" step before CMS presses charges.
It's not really court. But judges make sure the families understand that if they don't change their ways they could face the real thing.
"The first day I want to be as mean as possible," says McThenia. She holds "court" at Druid Hills Academy, a north Charlotte preK-8 school where almost 28 percent of students were chronically absent last year. She reminds parents that they're there because they've violated state law.
"You don't want to see me in a black robe downtown," McThenia tells them.
Each eight-week session features a mix of individual counseling and group sessions. Families leave with a plan for improvement, and the final session is a celebration for those who stuck with it.
This semester 14 CMS elementary and middle schools are hosting truancy courts. The number fluctuates based on availability of volunteers and family participation. Allenbrook, for instance, isn't holding a session this semester because most parents who were invited opted not to attend.
Both CMS and the court officials value the program enough to keep it alive for 17 years, longer than any similar program in America, Trosch says.
But when the district hired an independent research firm to evaluate results last year, the findings were discouraging.
The students whose parents had completed truancy court actually had more absences in the immediate aftermath than high-absence counterparts whose parents declined to participate. However, more of those absences were excused, which at least indicated the families were sending notes to school.
As the years passed, the group that had done in-school truancy court became indistinguishable from the group that hadn't.
"We get their attention ... but it is very easy for them to fall back to the old trajectory," Trosch said.
She needed the jolt
Roxanne Gibson was one of the parents who heard Judge McThenia's "you don't want to see me downtown" speech at Druid Hills.
She has five children, ages 7 to 12, and the older kids began piling up unexcused absences in 2015. Gibson says her older children have been bullied and mistreated at school. In addition, the oldest daughter, now 10, often takes responsibility for getting the others ready for school, which can mean chasing down coats and shoes.
"Sometimes they miss the bus on purpose and I be like, 'OK, I don't want to walk to school. We'll go the next day,' " Gibson said.
Gibson signed up for in-school truancy court in fall 2015 and spring 2016. She didn't finish either session, and after short stretches of improvement the children's attendance became spotty again, CMS officials say.
In 2017 CMS filed a truancy complaint against Gibson, based on absences for the four oldest children. She was summoned to court in August. That got her attention.
She thought about her children landing in foster care if she went to jail. "I need my kids. That's what I live for."
On March 29, CMS told McThenia she had met her goals: Two of the children had perfect attendance since the last appearance and none of the others had missed more than two days.
McThenia dropped the charges and asked everyone in the courtroom to applaud Gibson.
"If she can get four children to school on time every day she deserves every bit of applause y'all just gave her," McThenia said.
Gibson left the courtroom beaming. She applauds the crackdown: "It's going to make everybody step up their game, unless you get a triflin' mom who don't care about her kids."
But she doesn't think better attendance will solve her children's problems. She considers Druid Hills "a bad school" and wants to switch them, though she isn't sure how to do that.
And as her children get older, the family may face greater attendance challenges.
Two big factors: Poverty and age
Chronic absence rates track school poverty levels and rise as children become teens. Social workers say a cycle can develop: Early absences put students behind, and students who feel like failures may skip school as they get older.
Five CMS high schools with the highest poverty levels — Garinger, Vance, Harding, West Charlotte and West Meck — all have chronic absence rates above 30 percent.
The only other school hitting that mark is Walter G. Byers School, a K-8 school that earned an F rating from the state based on student test scores. The school's zone includes a homeless shelter, and 81 percent of its students are from low-income homes.
Mecklenburg commissioner Vilma Leake spoke at a January 2017 school board meeting, urging the board to build new schools for West Charlotte High and Bruns Academy. (Credit: Ann Doss Helms | The Charlotte Observer)
Vilma Leake, a retired teacher who represents the district that includes Byers, has repeatedly taken CMS to task for not doing enough to create successful schools in west Charlotte. But "you can't hold (schools) accountable if parents aren't getting them there," Leake said recently.
A parade of pain
Truancy court is a parade of pain and struggle. McThenia tries to help parents find solutions while stopping them from making excuses.
The father whose 15-year-old had missed 77 days agreed to meet with the school social worker as a first step. The counselor noted that the teen has mental health challenges, and when he's in school he can get counseling.
A mother of first- and fifth-graders who had built up 30 absences sobbed as Moreno, appointed to represent her, explained her dilemma. A recent arrival to Charlotte, the mother has to return to New York for worker's compensation to cover treatment of injuries suffered on the job there. She has no one here to care for her kids so she takes them with her, Moreno explained.
McThenia urged the mother to find someone who can look after her kids and get them to school. "I know you have extenuating circumstances," the judge said, "but please do what you can."
Another mother has eight children, ages 4 to 17. She's been in and out of truancy court since 2015. Her court-appointed lawyer said she's unemployed and suffering from depression.
"She's just someone who at this point is frankly struggling," he told McThenia. "She's willing to do what she can, but she can only do so much."
The mom had agreed to take a parenting class but failed to follow up because there was a fee. The court and CMS team did an on-the-spot search and found a free alternative. McThenia ordered the mother to take that class and to sign her children up for Big Brother/Big Sister mentors.
More support needed
All involved with the system say the challenges can be overwhelming.
"I hope this works. I really do," McThenia reflected during a court break. "But some of the problems are unsolvable."
Michele King, a CMS social work specialist who works with truancy, often feels the same way. She tries to focus on individual successes: "Sometimes one call makes a difference."
Moreno, however, is skeptical of the schools' ability to build respectful partnerships with families. She says she has seen cases where CMS social workers worked effectively with her clients. But she believes administrators overseeing the truancy program are too far removed from the obstacles the parents face.
Ultimately the message is that neither the schools nor the courts can do all it takes to move families out of poverty. That's a major theme of Leading on Opportunity, a coalition of business and civic leaders trying to boost economic mobility in Charlotte.
But systemic change is glacial. Short term, Wilcox is asking county commissioners for $4.4 million to hire an additional 17 social workers, 33 elementary school counselors and 10 school psychologists.. The district currently has 46 social workers, and would like to have one in each of its 78 high-poverty schools.
The truancy court team, made up of educators, judges and prosecutors, will keep seeking ways to prod parents into compliance without actually throwing them in jail.
The March 29 session ended around noon. McThenia had dismissed charges against Gibson and one other mother who met their goals. She took guilty pleas from two more who had repeatedly failed, giving them a conditional probation that means no jail or fine if they can do better. She got updates and handed out second and third and fourth chances.
It was the first time so many truancy offenders had been summoned to one session. When the last one filed out, McThenia looked at the handful of lawyers and CMS staff remaining.