Nearly 70 Camden high school students will be paid $100 each to not skip school.
The city's newest attempt at combating truancy - I Can End Truancy, or ICE-T - will focus on conflict-resolution and anger-management workshops and educational reinforcement during the next five weeks, ending Sept. 30.
Sixty-six youths, who range from incoming high school freshmen to seniors, filed into the Isabel Miller Community Center in Camden's Liberty Park neighborhood Tuesday for their first anti-truancy session.
The program, which will be held three days each week, is being funded mostly through a $63,000 Community Justice Grant from the state Department of Criminal Justice.
The County Prosecutor's Office received the grant but because the office no longer has a community justice director (Angel M. Osorio was laid off in May) to manage the grant, it agreed to give it to the city, said prosecutor's spokesman Jason Laughlin.
The money needs to be used by Sept. 30 or the city would lose its chance at receiving the grant next year, city officials said. That is why the students who have enrolled in the program will be paid only three weeks into the school year and not at the end.
The only leverage the city has for these students after Sept. 30 is a pledge they signed, along with their parents, promising to not skip school. Officials involved in the program pledged, in return, to track the students' attendance throughout the year.
The plan drew skepticism Tuesday from at least one current school board member and one who recently retired.
At a board meeting Tuesday evening, board member Sean Brown expressed anger that he only belatedly learned of the truancy program, prompting board President Susan Dunbar-Bey to tell him that "details are still being worked out."
Brown said in a text message that he was opposed to paying students to go to school.
Former board member Jose Delgado called the idea "outrageous," saying it sends the wrong message to students. Delgado said schools needed more fundamental changes to keep students interested.
The city contracted Wren Ingram, the city's former curfew program coordinator, who was laid off in March, to coordinate ICE-T. Ingram will be paid a weekly stipend, which city officials did not release Tuesday afternoon, except to say that it will come out of the grant money.
The idea for the program came out of a youth-development forum earlier this summer, Mayor Dana Redd said.
"We had talked about it [truancy] for a long time," Redd said Tuesday. "We wanted to come up with an innovative model."
The mayor's office reached out to school district officials to contact parents about the program. "We aggressively called parents and students," said Ramona Pearson-Hunter, the district's director of alternative programs.
Registration was held Friday and Monday. About 25 percent of students who enrolled in the anti-truancy program are considered "at-risk," or chronically truant, program officials said. The rest are a mix of borderline truants and "some who attend school but need help," Ingram said, adding that they wanted a mix of students.
The mayor hopes to continue the program via other grants so more chronically truant students have a chance to participate in later phases of the program.
New Jersey defines truancy as 10 or more cumulative unexcused absences.
The youths will be rewarded with $100 on Sept. 30 if they attend most anti-truancy sessions and school days. Absences will be assessed case by case, Ingram said.
"Every story is different," Ingram said, adding that many of Camden's youths face "extraordinary things."
One of the students in the program is a ninth grader who cannot read, and several students go hungry at home, she said.
Tutoring and homework help will be incorporated into the truancy program once school starts, officials said.
Pearson-Hunter who has been in charge of the district's truancy efforts for the last year said some of the truants cite boredom.
"We know we have to keep them active," she said, adding that she suggests students ask teachers for extra-credit activities to remain engaged.
City and school officials said they could not recall any previous attempt to pay Camden students to attend school. Redd said the money was an incentive that was needed, adding that other cities have done the same.
Delgado, who retired earlier this year after 24 years on the board, said the district had rolled out several anti-truancy plans in the past as funding came along, but none had rid the district of its attendance problem.
"If a student is not going to school in the ninth grade, you better change something in your school," Delgado said in reference to ninth grade being the most problematic for truancy in Camden.
Pearson-Hunter said attendance has improved in recent years, with the rate reaching just over 90 percent - the required state minimum - last year, after dipping below that previously.