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Truancy prevention program gets increased funding, oversight suggestions

Local law enforcement seeking to keep children in school will be getting a boost next year with a funding increase for a key truancy program that looks at the root causes of kids missing school.   

While multiple concerns were raised about the 21-year-old Helping Families Initiative in a recent state report, including its oversight and the amount of money spent on administrative costs, supporters of the program say it is needed.

“To my knowledge, never in our state’s history or our country’s history, and coming out of COVID, has it been more important to battle and fight truancy than it is today,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said. “The number of children not going to school is staggering in some places. And so having the district attorneys involved and engaged and holding parents accountable, and sometimes even before a judge, is very important.

“It may not be sexy or exciting for district attorneys, but they can really lend a service to not only turn around a young person and their life but also help with crime prevention because kids are staying in school and not dropping out or getting in trouble.”

The Legislature started funding the program in 2017 with $50,000. In 2025, it will receive $3.3 million, up from $2.5 million this year. The program has expanded as state funding has increased.

Key findings in a spring report from the Alabama Commission on the Evaluation of Services included a lack of data on outcomes and a “fundamental lack of accountability with the program that impacts fidelity, effectiveness and efficiency.” 

The program’s administrative costs have averaged 29% since receiving state funding, the ACES report said. 

The fiscal ’25 education budget requires that no more than 15% of the appropriation can be used for ‘indirect, overhead, administration, training or support expenses.” It also requires a September 2025 report on the number of students served in each district. 

The report came out in March and HFI Executive Director John Tyson Jr., who founded the effort in 2003 when he was the district attorney in Mobile County, said he welcomes the suggestions.

“We actually started a very serious review of ourselves on Oct. 1.” Tyson told Alabama Daily News recently. “We don’t mind their questions, hard questions sharpen our thinking.” 

 Tyson started the program in which DA’s offices can intervene directly with students and their families as a way to reduce crime, he said.

“Education is the greatest crime prevention technique there is,” he said.

Tyson was a state board of education member in the 1980s, prior to becoming DA.

“I understood that our teachers know who is going to be in trouble before they got in trouble,” he said. But too often nothing was done “until it was too damn late.”

The initiative now operates in at least portions of 21 districts with DA offices and local governments funding some of the costs. 

Orr said the program is difficult to manage because while Tyson can provide some direction and seed money for expanded programs, how they operate in each circuit is up to the DAs.

“He can’t manage or control like an authority figure could,” Orr said. “These DAs are voluntarily participating and he’s got to help support them and show them the model.”

Tyler said if the program weren’t effective, community leaders wouldn’t fund it.

During the 2021-22 school year, 18% of Alabama K-12 students missed 18 or more days of reported last year.

The Helping Families Initiative starts with a simple letter home from the local DA’s office, Tyson said. Sometimes, that’s sufficient. If not, the following step is a family assessment and if needed then an individual intervention plan for families and students.

“What we’re trying to do is find the underlying root cause and eliminate it,” Tyson said.

Many of those things are out of students’ control, including a health or mental health issue in the home, lack of employment in the family and poverty-related issues. Efforts are made to connect families to available resources. Often the families are unaware of them.

“We convene a community conversation on behalf of these kids,” Tyson said.

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