Not Present

Former truants relapse, stay away from attendance awards in droves.

On Wednesday, June 4, an American flag billowed in the wind outside the Fort Mason Conference Center, where the San Francisco Unified School District held an award ceremony for students who had increased their attendance this school year. District Attorney Kamala Harris and Superintendent Carlos Garcia were slated to give speeches, and the district had plaques for six schools, six parents, and 50 students.

There was just one problem. Only about 10 of the students were in attendance.

It seemed the chronically truant had relapsed. The ceremony had been in the planning stages for three to four months, and the school district had sent invitations to students and parents two weeks prior. The schools that would be honored, however, were selected just a day before the ceremony, which may have also contributed to the generally low turnout.

When 6:30 p.m. rolled around, guests were sparsely seated at only half the white-clothed tables, and a few more were trickling in. Almost all were adults. As though in a classroom with an intimidating teacher, most of them had taken seats near the back.

One of the few students to attend was Maria Espinoza. As the ceremony started, the fourth grader at Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary munched cheese cubes. When asked why she was truant for much of her third grade year, she looked down at her pink sweater covered in bunnies and whispered that she liked to sleep in. Maria's mother, whom she lives with, wasn't at the ceremony. Instead, her father, Jorge Espinoza, accompanied her, and school principal Pat Forte also came for support. “This is a girl who's turned things around,” Forte said, smiling.

“What has she turned around?” asked a man in a gray suit and spectacles who had apparently wandered in from a party next door to mingle and feast on free baked chicken legs.

“I go to school now,” Maria said.

“I always went to school,” the man said.

After receiving her plaque, Maria explained that it felt great to get an award, but she still didn't think much of school. Or the ceremony, for that matter. She played with her water bottle throughout Superintendent Garcia's speech about his rough-and-tumble youth in the L.A. Unified school district. He had grown up next to heroin addicts and gangbangers, he said, so he learned boxing to defend himself.

When Kamala Harris told the audience that she — the first African-American district attorney elected in California and first female district attorney elected in San Francisco — was a product of California public schools, Maria's expression remained blank. “This feels just like school,” she said of the ceremony.

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