Philadelphia — Jennifer Jones doesn't take any guff. Not from her own children, not from the ones in the neighborhood, and especially not from the ones she sees goofing off on the subway or at the mall when they should be in school.
Jones, 42, is one of 250 truant officers hired by the Philadelphia school district this school year to get thousands of truants back to class.
It is no accident that Jones is a parent of two school-age children. The district is specifically recruiting parents.
"Parents know the terrain, know the environment, understand the culture and may even know some of the individual parents and kids," said Paul Vallas, chief executive of the 200,000-student school system.
Truancy is a big concern in Philadelphia and other cities. On any given day, more than 12,000 Philadelphia students are absent without an excuse, a rate of 6.4 percent.
The problem worries school officials because truants are more likely to use drugs, join gangs, commit crimes or drop out.
"Truancy is our first best flag that a kid will enter the juvenile justice system," said Ken Seeley, who is studying the effectiveness of seven truancy-reduction programs for the U.S. Justice Department.
Vallas hired 600 parents for a similar program in Chicago, where he headed the school system for six years. He said the program cut truancy from 5.7 percent to 3.9 percent.
Philadelphia contracted with 12 community and religious organizations to hire and train parent-truant officers. The program began last month as 166 parents completed their training and started visiting the homes of truants. The officers are paid $9 an hour for at least 10 hours a week.
"The primary role is to inform parents that their child has been truant, that resources are available, that we are ready to help," said Vern Trent, who heads the program.
While it is too soon to tell whether the $1.2 million program is working, the truant officers had more than 1,600 contacts with parents through Dec. 31.
Some parents are simply unaware their children are cutting class. Others cannot afford school clothing or bus tokens. Still others are on drugs or alcohol.
Hastings Coach, who heads the parent-truant officer program for the Women's Association for Women's Alternatives, a social services agency, said officers were told to be supportive and understanding, not threatening.
"Anytime you're in someone's home, you're a guest and you have to conduct yourself accordingly. You're not some authority with a stiff hand. You want to be invited back," he said.
But officers also explain that chronic absenteeism could land both students and their parents in the city's truancy court, with the possibility of fines, community service and even jail for the adults and transfer to an alternative school for the children.
That is smart, Seeley said, because any successful truancy-reduction program needs to have both carrots and sticks. In Jacksonville, Fla., one of the programs he is studying, more than 100 parents have been arrested for failing to send their children to school.
Jones, whose children are 6, 16 and 19, said Philadelphia's truancy program was a natural fit for her. Her house has always been a magnet for neighborhood children; she has been known to break up fistfights; even before she became a truant officer, she confronted truants and ordered them to go back to school.
And because her own children are sometimes less than enthusiastic about school, she understands how some parents have trouble making sure theirs go to class.
"I think people feel more comfortable dealing with another parent," said she. "Parents know what kids are capable of, how their minds work."