The Truancy Court Program connects public middle school students with a judge and mentor each week, to figure out why the child is skipping school and put him or her back on track. Francis Scott Key Middle School in Silver Spring and Germantown's Neelsville Middle School began the program in 2010 after a federal grant provided Maryland with $500,000 to roll out the program into four counties over three years.
As a result, participating Neelsville students averaged a 59 percent drop in absences and a 75 percent drop in tardy reports in spring 2011, while Key students averaged 44 percent fewer absences and a 33 percent reduction in tardiness.
But a drop-off in funds forced Montgomery County Public Schools to continue only Key's program into the current school year, and this summer, the funds will be kaput there too.
State's Attorney John McCarthy estimated it would cost $25,000 to put the program in each school, and suggested a public-private partnership with the local bar association.
"But we're still going to need the internal investment of dollars to have those caseworkers in place at individual schools. I'd just love to see us continue what we're doing," McCarthy told the Montgomery County Council's Education Committee at a Thursday briefing.
Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville, suggested that the county look to private foundations and donors, as well as local lawyers, to try to keep the program afloat.
"The pitch would be to take it to scale, to get it into more schools, and also to expand it in schools where the truancy issue is greatest," Andrews said.
All things considered, Montgomery's truancy problem is not large: In 2009, less than 1 percent of all MCPS students were "habitually truant," missing 20 percent or more of school days without an excuse. Seven percent of students where "chronically absent," racking up 20 absences, excused or unexcused.
Still, that adds up to 9,621 students who were habitually or chronically truant.
The school system has several of its own strategies to combat truancy. When school-level interventions like letters and parent conferences -- and even staff members calling to wake up families -- fail, school officials step up the game by meeting with parents and students at conference rooms lent to them once each month at six high schools.
"It ratchets up the seriousness because it takes it out of [their own school], it's central office folks," said Steve Neff, director of pupil personnel services for MCPS.
None of that was to imply that school interventions are better than the court program, Neff said.