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August 25, 2017 Dialogue

Grantee Spotlight | Georgia’s Truancy Intervention Project Creates Graduates

By Len Horton

Meet LaToya Riley

LaToya Riley lost both parents when she was eight years old and had gone to live with her grandfather. Even though he was very supportive, there were limits to what he could do. It didn't seem to matter that she was smart and capable. She was more on her own than many children, and increasingly school was not on her radar screen. She started missing classes. After her third warning by a juvenile court judge in Georgia, she was put in detention for six days.

Truancy: A National Crisis

LaToya was on the edge of becoming one of an estimated 2.3 million children in our nation who drop out of school each year and suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives. Many children don't realize how serious an impact truancy can have on their future. Instead, they often think it is amusing, as did the kids in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Another term for truancy, "playing hooky," tends to play down the seriousness of the truancy problem. In reality, many of these children will grow up and eventually commit crimes and end up in prison. A total of 75% of all crimes are committed by school dropouts. Peer into prisons and see what school dropouts grow up to be. About 95% of prisoners are school dropouts. Since approximately 90 percent of all jobs in the U.S. require a high school diploma, dropping out disqualifies these children, once they are grown up, from nearly all the jobs in the country. LaToya was perilously close to becoming one of those lost kids who become lost adults.

The Truancy Intervention Project (TIP)

If only there were some way to get LaToya and those other children in similar situations back in school and to see that they graduate. One man, a caring Atlanta lawyer named Terry Walsh, a partner in Alston & Bird, asked himself whether it might be possible to do something to keep kids in school, to get their diplomas and to give our schools a chance to turn them on to learning. Terry Walsh's answer to that question became Georgia's Truancy Intervention Project (TIP). Walsh and Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Glenda Hatchett refined his idea, focusing on problem students who had come to the attention of the juvenile court system. Walsh’s idea was to pair volunteer lawyers with troubled students who were starting to miss classes on a regular basis. A lawyer could represent the student in school matters and in discussions with the principal while providing mentoring. If the idea worked, the student would resume attending school, and the school would have a better chance of doing a good job with the student, nudging the student along a new path that would make all the difference in a student's life. Furthermore, if Walsh's idea could be made available to those two million-plus children just as they were starting to distance themselves from school, the entire nation would benefit.

Providing Much-Needed Support

When LaToya Riley walked out of detention after those six days, she walked into her new world created by the Georgia Truancy Intervention Project with the full support of the Fulton County Juvenile Court. She had been a promising child, but the promising child had become a problem child. As LaToya walked out of detention, she received increased attention from Caren Cloud, a lawyer and TIP's legal director who was waiting for her, determined to help her work through her problems and determined to keep her in school.

A Proven Track Record of Success

TIP's overall success rate is 86%. To put that into perspective, a baseball player batting .860 would probably have a good shot at being the sport's first billionaire player. More than 10,000 students with attendance problems have been assisted by Georgia's Truancy Intervention Project, and many of them have accomplishments that compete with the accomplishments of any other students, no matter the school or the disciplinary problems. TIP currently has more than 250 volunteers, non-lawyers as well as lawyers. Its non-lawyer volunteers work more with younger students and their families whereas the lawyer volunteers represent kids in court and deal with school management in addition to working directly with the students and their families.

LaToya Riley was one of those 10,000 students, but she became much more than a statistic. Ms. Cloud from TIP began meeting with Ms. Riley and regularly talking with her on the telephone. In a short period of time, LaToya resumed attending school and her grades began to improve. She had always been a bright youngster and, now that she was more serious about school, her grades really improved. 

More Than Just a Mentor

TIP wasn't through with LaToya Riley merely because she was making good progress. Caren Cloud stayed interested in her and slowly became more than a lawyer interacting with her client. She and LaToya became friends and eventually family. Having a parent who expects a child to be a good student is paramount to motivating a student to achieve. This part of what TIP does may be called mentoring, but it might better be called "family-ing."

LaToya refers to each TIP staff member by name as if they are part of her family…because that is what they have become. On several occasions LaToya has spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with Ms. Cloud's family. So impressive was LaToya's turnaround that, after she graduated with a diploma (not a GED) and was old enough, the TIP leadership invited her to become a member of the TIP Board of Trustees in 2013, representing the interest of clients. As Jessica Pennington, executive director of TIP, said, "She is a good speaker and has done a fine job explaining TIP and its work at luncheons and other meetings. We are very proud of her."

At TIP’s 25th anniversary celebration last year, LaToya had the opportunity as an official of TIP to meet Hank Aaron and express her sincere appreciation for his support of efforts to eliminate truancy.

IOLTA Funds Help Expand TIP's Reach

Maybe a decade or so ago I met with Terry Walsh and told him, "There is one thing seriously wrong with TIP." If you had seen the look on his face as I said those words, you might have a chance to understand how committed he is to making this program is good as possible.

"What?" he instantly wanted to know. 

I quickly answered, "It is not available to students everywhere in Georgia." Mr. Walsh thought a moment and responded, "But that will take much more money." That was when I told him that the Georgia Bar Foundation’s Board of Trustees was encouraging him to expand the program to other jurisdictions throughout Georgia.

The exporting of the program to other jurisdictions became a major focus of TIP and the Georgia Bar Foundation until the drop in interest rates significantly reduced the funds available for the program from IOLTA revenues. As IOLTA revenues climb along with interest rates, the Georgia Bar Foundation hopes to be able to resume major funding for TIP and the students it serves. At its annual grants meeting, held this year on July 13, 2017, the Georgia Bar Foundation awarded TIP a total of $40,000, and in a separate award (in its partnership with Atlanta Legal Aid) it is receiving $130,000.

Graduation Time

It is one thing to note the praises of teachers and the TIP creator and TIP managers and volunteers, all of whom love the program and the results it gets for students. But what do the students really think?

"The Truancy Intervention Project means everything to me," said LaToya Riley.  "I haven’t told anybody else this, but there was only one person I invited to my graduation. That was Ms. Cloud."

Len Horton

Executive Director, Georgia Bar Foundation

Len Horton is the Executive Director of the Georgia Bar Foundation.