Only 94 percent of students attended school last year, giving the school system one of the worst truancy rates in the state. But one approach seems to be gaining strides when it comes to keeping kids off the streets.
Judge Marcia Morey is at the head of one class at Githens Middle School. Every week, she guides students and their parents through truancy court. The group hears excuses about missed buses and broken alarm clocks, but their goal is to get to the core of the problem.
Parents are asked to be there. Some never show, and those who do attend hear the lectures.
"Do you know how many 16-year-olds I've seen shot in the last few years?" said Morey "Too many. They're just walking down the street, throwing a sign and are shot in the back."
"I feel good, because I feel everybody cares about her," said mother Alma Rivera.
"It allows us to provide support, lets them know we're paying attention -- you are important," said principal Emmett Tilley.
Since the truancy court program started at Githens Middle, the attendance rate has already improved 3 percent.
"Kids can't learn if they're not in school," said Tilley.
So, administrators at Githens are keeping a close eye on students, and trying to avoid the real justice system.
"[Multiple unexcused absences] is a violation of the law, and you can see me at the courthouse," said Morey
Morey and the group see plenty of setbacks, but there are also successes. However, for those who don't straighten up, there is the guarantee of more trips to truancy court. And at the end of each day, there is hope the makeshift courtroom will eventually keep every kid in the classroom.
School truancy court started as a pilot program four years ago. Most of the schools participating have seen at least a 5 percent increase in attendance. Durham expanded to all 10 middle schools last year.
According to state law, students who are chronically truant can be locked up. Their parents can also get jail time.