Program aims to keep kids in school

CNJ staff photo: Robin Coffey Officer Squatch, left, gets students ready to play basketball during an ACT assembly Wednesday at Zia.

Robin Coffey

Abolish Chronic Truancy (ACT) reaches out to kids with a message: Staying in school can open doors, and dropping out usually leads to roadblocks.

At least that’s the message Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler hopes students get when they participate in his program.

During an ACT assembly Wednesday at Zia Elementary, “Officer Squatch,” the program mascot, played basketball with four students and a teacher.

Students were also treated to home videos of Officer Squatch, who roams the town in search of children skipping school. When Officer Squatch finds a skipper, he tackles them, which is his assigned duty, and takes the them back to school.

During the assemblies, Troy Oliver of the District Attorney’s office talks to students about the downsides to dropping out of school. He points out that, statistically, they have a greater chance of ending up in jail, making less money during the span of their career and are at a greater risk of poor health.

Oliver also tells the students that about 70 percent of local jail inmates are dropouts and about 95 percent of all the murder defendants in the district are people who failed to graduate high school.

The program was started to be proactive and not reactive and to help prevent crime and dropout rates, according to Steve North of the District Attorney’s office.

“This is the fifth year doing this program,” said North. “We give students the incentives to stay in school, such as a $2,000 scholarship, cars to high school students, bicycles, game systems and a ticket package to Dallas, Six Flags and Hurricane Harbor.

“We want to see an increase in graduation rates and a decrease in dropout rates,” North said.

Over the past five years, attendance and graduation rates have increased in the Clovis and Portales school districts.

“There has been a decrease in dropout rates, but the DA’s office cannot take all the credit,” said North. “The schools and the sponsors are awesome and have helped out a lot.”

Not a single senior had perfect attendance in Clovis or Portales the first year of ACT, Chandler said. By the second year of the program, there were about five seniors with perfect attendance, according to Chandler.

Chandler points to that as anecdotal proof the program motivates students to stay in school and achieve.

In past years, the program has awarded more than 100 bikes, 20 game systems, such as Xbox and Wii, two cars donated by Hamilton Automotive to high school students and a $2,000 scholarship to a senior attending West Texas A&M.

For three consecutive years, the program has also offered a package trip to Dallas, including four round-trip tickets airfare for Six Flags, Hurricane Harbor and a Texas Rangers game with $500 spending money.

The awards are given to students with perfect attendance and winners are determined by a series of drawings.