Earlier in March 100 Black Men of Madison, a group dedicated to furthering the prospects of black men, launched a program to reduce skipping class among black students. One University of Wisconsin expert explained how the initiative fits into addressing the broader context of truancy.

The Student Opportunities, Access and Readiness program aims to provide mentorship to around 500 black students within Madison using volunteers from United Way Dane County, Floyd Rose, president of 100 Black Men of Madison said.

But to completely eliminate truancy and the juvenile delinquency associated with it, programs like SOAR must be made available to students earlier, Michael Caldwell, a University of Wisconsin expert on juvenile delinquency said.

SOAR’s mentoring for black students seeks to reduce the performance disparity between black and white students within Dane County, Rose said. He said he understands there are a variety of underlying causes for truancy, but SOAR will provide support for students between the ages of 12 to 17 without means.

“I would say more than 50 percent of all students in the Madison Public School System are at the poverty level,” Rose said. “For African-Americans it’s 70 percent.”

The economic pressures of poverty, such as hunger and strained social support, are what lead students to skip school, Rose said. This chronic truancy in turn can lead a student down the path of juvenile delinquency.

Through the program, mentors will help students navigate struggles inside the classroom and out of it. The program will also inform students about post-graduation employment opportunities and how to pursue higher education that may seem out of reach.

This falls in line with what Caldwell has seen researching juvenile delinquency and its causes. He said the SOAR program has a good chance of reducing truancy if executed properly, even if the program doesn’t directly reach all students at risk of dropping out.

“When a kid drops out of school, then they are likely to hang out with other kids who drop out of school, so it snowballs,” Caldwell said.

The idea is if a student has fewer peers who have dropped out or are regularly truant, then they in turn will be less inclined to abandon their studies. Caldwell said for young males, having a male mentor from a similar background can have a big impact on how a student perceives the world, which in turn affects their future decisions.

Caldwell said students who become truant often have parents who struggle with addiction or for some reason are unable to guide their children through life’s hurdles.

“Things change as kids get older, and supervision as a teenager goes into high school becomes more important,” Caldwell said.

A major difference between the U.S. and countries where truancy is low, such as Norway and Holland, is the existence of robust structures of social support, Caldwell said. Such structures include adequate education, nutrition and health care and adult supervision, he said.

In the U.S. there are gaps in these support structures, Caldwell said. But through the work of organizations like 100 Black Men, he said it is still possible to reduce truancy considerably, the key is early intervention. He said students at risk of becoming truant must be connected with mentoring services as soon as it becomes clear they are struggling.

“You can’t wait until a student is two years behind their peers before you step in and try and provide support,” Caldwell said. “Within the school system currently, a student has to be at least two years behind their peers before they qualify for special services.”

Rose said the program will be flexible and will work with other programs or organizations with similar goals. In the meantime, Rose said he is confident the mentoring program will have a positive effect on students’ lives.

The ultimate goal of the program, Rose said, will be to reduce truancy rates by 7 percent and increase graduation rates by 5 percent. He said there are thousands of students of color who could benefit from the program, but will be unreachable because of their limited scope.

“We’re just scratching the surface here,” Rose said. “If everybody did twice as much as they do now [for minority students] it still wouldn’t be enough.”