Truancy center in works

Board, agencies in cooperation

The mission of the facility is to identify truant youth and provide them and their families with services that would prevent additional unexcused absences.

East Baton Rouge Parish is one step closer to opening a facility dedicated to combating truancy.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board recommended unanimously Wednesday to enter into an agreement with the state to use the empty School for the Visually Impaired for such a purpose.

The agreement allows the school system to use the 9-acre facility on Government Street rent-free as long as costs for utilities, maintenance and liability are paid.

The School Board is expected to ratify the agreement at its Thursday meeting.

The School Board also is expected to approve an agreement between the board and the offices of Mayor-President Kip Holden, District Attorney Hillar Moore and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux.

The agreement among the four government agencies locks in initial funds for the facility, a draft of the agreement says. Each agency has committed $100,000 a year for the next three years.

“This has been a long process,” Superintendent John Dilworth said. “I’m glad to see it come to fruition.”

Dilworth, Moore and Holden have been working for more than a year to prevent and decrease public school truancy in the parish.

Part of that effort has been the development of a facility that would make it easier for parents and guardians to get the help they need to keep their children in school.

The mission of the facility - called the Family and Youth Service Center and Neighborhood Place - is to identify truant youth and provide them and their families with services that would prevent additional unexcused absences, the draft agreements say.

Representatives from agencies that provide such services eventually will be housed at the facility, the drafts say.

Some of those agencies include the school system’s Child Welfare and Attendance Office, Valley Park Assistance Center and the East Baton Rouge Parish Truancy Assessment and Service Center.

Jennie Ponder, director of the truancy center, said having service representatives under one roof will give parents better access to the help they need to keep their children in school.

“By making it easier, I think it will be more appealing to parents,” Ponder said. “It won’t be as frustrating for them to get help.”

Gwen Hamilton, assistant chief administrative officer with Holden’s office, said that with service representatives currently spread out across the city, it’s hard to get comprehensive aid.

The Family and Youth Service Center and Neighborhood Place will ease that challenge not only for parents but for the providers themselves, Hamilton said. “They can become more strategic in their offerings to families,” she said.

Kelly Bonaventure, a pre-trial services/juvenile service coordinator with the District Attorney’s Office, said those involved in the creation of the Family and Youth Service Center and Neighborhood Place hope to open the facility’s doors by next school year or sooner.

In the meantime, organizers are looking for someone to run the facility and for additional funds to keep it open, Bonaventure said. A rough estimate of the annual cost of operating the facility could range from $500,000 to $900,000, depending on how much of the complex is used, she said.

The Wilson Foundation donated $100,000 to set up a computer system at the facility and rent will be collected from the agencies housed there, Bonaventure said. The rent will not exceed the amount needed to run the facility, she said. “A profit will not be made, Bonaventure said.

District Attorney Moore said he’s looking forward to the facility opening and believes it would help reduce juvenile crime, much of which is committed by children who aren’t in school.

“We hope that, ultimately, it will be the beginning step to preventing such crime,” Moore said.

Dilworth agreed, saying he believes the facility also will help improve the parish’s graduation and dropout rates. Currently, the parish’s graduation rate is 60 percent, he said. The parish’s dropout rate is 5 percent.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Dilworth said. “This is going to be a process that will go on for multiple years, but hopefully, it will make a difference.”