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New program battles student truancy

Matches kids, adults to combat skipping

– On the juvenile bench less than a year, Allen Superior Court Judge Dan Heath is unrolling another program, this one aimed at helping kids stay out of trouble by staying in school.

On Thursday, Heath announced the new initiative – called Check and Connect – that provides mentors who will intervene with truant students to keep them in school.

Heath came to the Allen County Juvenile Center in late April after 16 years in Allen Superior Court’s Civil Division. The Check and Connect program, developed at the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota, is in place in a number of counties around the country, according to Allen Superior Court’s Family Relations Division.

“Truant kids are an incredibly vulnerable group,” Heath told Allen County Council members Thursday. “We need this to work so we can get juvenile delinquency rates down. These kids need our help, and getting them on a different path before they get to our center is an exciting possibility.”

Councilman Bill Brown, R-at large, was excited to hear about the program.

He said mentors could make all the difference in the life of a child.

“When you look at high-performing kids, there are usually people around them who care, but low-performing kids many times have no one who cares, Brown said.

According to the University of Minnesota’s website, the program has 20 years of collected data and research.

The trained mentors will check on students, “assessing their engagement with school and learning through close monitoring of their attendance, behavior and grades.” The mentors will also “connect” with the students, “offering individualized intervention in partnership with school personnel, families and community service providers,” according to the website.

Research shows a strong link between truancy and criminal offenses later in the students’ life, according to Heath.

The local pilot program will have limited funding for now, and that money will come from the Allen County Juvenile Center.

At least four part-time mentors will be responsible for 20 to 25 students who meet predetermined criteria for being high risk for truancy and for disengaging from school.

Heath intends to begin the pilot program next fall. A training seminar will be held in cooperation with the University of Minnesota.

The pilot program will initially be in place at South Side and New Haven high schools, which have high levels of truancy, Heath said.

That training will give Allen County a discount for its own training, Heath said.

Administrators with Allen County’s four public school districts and the Status Offender Court Alternative program have been meeting to plan implementation of the program, Heath said.

“Yes, we are working with Judge Heath, and anything that we can do to keep kids in school and to make sure that they are learning, we are happy to be a part of,” said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools.

“Having people in the community who are willing to work with us always makes that better. We know, just like Judge Heath, that if students can find their way in education, that they are less likely to get involved in criminal activity.”

Vivian Sade of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.