Rescuing futures, one kid at a time

Albany's anti-truancy effort wins results, is copied at other schools

Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Monday, May 5, 2008

ALBANY - Dashon Turner's future is on the line.

The 16-year-old Albany High School freshman has missed months of school. He's played hooky. He has been suspended. Whether he'll face the future with a high school diploma or just street smarts is the topic of a 45-minute breakfast meeting in a nondescript Central Avenue office building.

That's when he first encounters Sal Villa.

"No one on this planet loves you more than your mom. That's why you're here today," Villa tells the teen.

Villa is deputy commissioner of the city Youth and Workforce Services. He spends hours every week talking with kids like Turner. Villa tells Turner he can be persistent.

Turner looks down at his hands and quietly mumbles an inaudible response to Villa's encouragement. This face-to-face meeting is one reason Albany's truancy abatement program is a statewide model for reaching out to truants to keep them in school. Five years ago, Turner might have slipped unnoticed onto the streets. Now, Villa heads a collaborative effort between the city, its police department and the school district. The three groups work as a team to knock on parents' doors between 9:30 a.m and 7 p.m.

Rochester officials visited recently. Geneva has been here and Suffolk County, Long Island, wants to learn about the effort that last month was named Outstanding Program of the Year by the International Association for Truancy and Dropout Prevention. Troy recently adopted the city's truancy plan so closely that it whited-out the word Albany on its paperwork and replaced it with Troy.

In January, school officials contacted Villa's office about Turner because he had been absent for so long. Villa, a former Albany High School administrator, knows solutions start at home. That's why Turner's mother, Liane Caldwell, is at the meeting.

Caldwell gives her son curfews. She's tough because she wants more for him than she had herself. Now she's asking Villa for help.

"I'm not losing any of my kids to these streets," she says. "If I have to jump in front of a bullet, I'll do it."

Turner eats a bagel silently. He doesn't look anyone in the eye. Villa taps him on the arm and asks him to face forward as he goes over the alternatives. Turner nods as Villa explains how he could get a high school equivalency diploma or enter a residential Job Corps program where he could learn an automotive or culinary arts trade. He also mentions YouthBuild, which would teach him construction skills as well as academics.

It's the students with a lot of free time who get into trouble easily, Villa says.

Last week, a group of teens attacked two 14-year-olds coming out of the Adult Learning Center on Western Avenue. The teen who cut them had been ditching his classes at Albany High for months, school officials said.

Students with one foot in the street, where parental and school authority are minimal, are a priority. Every weekday morning, teams of social workers and city police go to fast food restaurants, Washington Park and other spots to find kids who should be in class.

"We guarantee efforts. We guarantee persistence," Villa says. "We don't guarantee results."

But results are there. Since the truancy abatement program - which is solely funded by a $255,000 annual state grant - started in 2004, the district's dropout rate has been cut from 6 percent to 3 percent. The graduation rate has climbed more than 10 percentage points to 72 percent in the 2005-06 school year, the most recent figures from the state Department of Education.

In the first four months of this year, Villa's anti-truancy team has almost equaled the 302 nighttime home visits made in 2006-07. Officials say this is because the program's operators are becoming more aggressive and experienced in battling truancy. The program operates with team members working different shifts. The daytime team has already surpassed last year's 473 home visits.

The goal is to reach students like Turner before they get in trouble. Caldwell said her son got into a fight recently. She knows where behavior like that leads. Her son has struggled in school since second grade. He doesn't want to look stupid when he falls behind, she says, so he never raises his hand to ask questions - instead, she said he "acts out."

Now, she wants her son out of Albany. Glenmont, where the Job Corps program will train him to be an auto mechanic, is not far enough. There's a similar program near Cooperstown. Turner, who dreams of going into the music business some day, says he wants to learn more about it.

He and his mother meet with social worker Katy McKeon, who has the word "Imagine" spelled out on her wall, to schedule a counseling session in two weeks.

Caldwell seems relieved as they prepare to leave. Villa pulls Turner aside one more time and asks the teen to look at him.

"You have talent, brains, ability," he says. "It doesn't do any good unless you use it."

Turner nods to let Villa know he heard the message and slouches into his black hoodie as he makes his way onto Central Avenue. Villa watches him go, then turns to the inch-thick stack of case files he'll tackle that day.

Scott Waldman can be reached at 454-5080 or by e-mail at