Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 11: The Parental School

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Attention was called in the chapter dealing with the causes of non-attendance[1] to the fact that, in a number of cases, the parents are unable to make their children go regularly to school or to secure their good behavior when they are there. The following quotation from a report of the Board of Education published in 1893 indicates the need that was felt more than twenty years ago for an institution adapted to the peculiar needs of such children, and the serious objections felt against suspension from school as the only penalty for misbehavior:

Responsibility for the proper restraint, training and care of this class of children, rests first upon the parents, then upon the State. Many parents have appealed to us during the year, asking what could be done to save a wilful, ungovernable child. No provision is made for their restraint, until they violate some law under which they can be arrested as criminals, and then they are committed to the jail, bridewell, or prison. The question of protecting society by the right education of these children has been considered for several years by the various clubs and charitable organizations . . . . . Instead of suspending refractory and vicious children from our schools, provision should be made so that a child who is not manageable with better children, shall first be placed under the care of special teachers in a disciplinary school, and when they become unmanageable by parents and teachers, they should be confined in a parental home or school, thus providing a means of properly educating and training every child.

The gradual realization of the necessity for providing effective machinery for dealing with these children was traced

(166) in another chapter,[2] and it was shown that when the parental school law was passed in 1899 and the Chicago Parental School finally opened its doors in 1902, hope was expressed that there had begun a new era in the care of children.

The parental school law[3] provided that any truant officer or any agent of the Board of Education or any reputable citizen of Chicago could petition the Circuit or County Court (juvenile Branch) to inquire into the case of any child between seven and fourteen years of age who was found not to be attending school or was reported to be guilty of habitual truancy or of persistent violation of the rules of the school, and the court was authorized to commit any such child to the Parental School until he became fourteen years of age. The school opened January 31) 1902, and between that date and the end of the school year in June, 1915, 4,198 boys had been committed to the institution.[4]

The school is located on a farm in the sparsely settled northwest section of the city, known as Bowmanville. The farm contains 110 acres and is stocked with farm animals and fowls, so that the boys can have work out of doors, both on little plots of their own for which they are responsible, and in connection with the general work of the farm under the supervision of a trained farmer and teacher of agriculture. There is likewise provision for manual training of the usual kind, and, of course, for the ordinary subjects taught in the first seven grades of the elementary schools. The school, which was able to care for only thirteen boys when it was opened in January, 1902, has been enlarged several times until it has now eight cottages in each of which 40 boys can be cared for.


Under the law, a child may remain under the jurisdiction of the school until he is fourteen years of age, when he is automatically discharged. No provision is made in the parental school law for children between fourteen and sixteen years of age, although children between these ages are now under the jurisdiction of the compulsory education authorities. This lack of provision in the parental school law for children who have reached the age of fourteen is a serious omission. When the law was passed in 1899, the compulsory school law provided for a fourteen-year-age limit, but the amendment to the compulsory law in 1907 which extended the period of compulsory attendance, under certain conditions, to the age of sixteen should have been accompanied by a change in the parental school law extending the age limit to sixteen for that institution or providing a new school for children between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. The effect of the discrepancy between the age limits in the parental school law and in the compulsory attendance law has been discussed in several reports of the Board of Education.[5] For example, the president of the board in his annual report in 1914 stated emphatically his belief in the necessity of amending the law: "The parental school law should consistently provide sixteen Years as the maximum age of commitment, instead of fourteen as at present."[6]

After a boy has been committed to the school he may be released on parole if his conduct is satisfactory during the first four weeks after his commitment. In that case he is returned to his home, but remains subject to the control of the school for a year from the date of his commitment. Reports are made by the principal of the school to which the child is returned after his release; and if he. attends school regularly and is well

(168) behaved, he is honorably discharged at the end of the year. Otherwise he is returned to the Parental School, and the law provides that he must then be kept there for at least three months before he is again paroled, and in case he is returned a second time to the school he must be kept for twelve months before his third parole is granted him. The superintendent of the school says with reference to the conduct of the boys who are paroled that "at first practically all reports are good," and it is not until a few months after parole that reports of unsatisfactory conduct begin to come in.

The truth is, of course, that a return to earlier habits on the part of the boy is exactly what is to be expected, if he returns to the conditions out of which arose his earlier truancy or incorrigibility. For example, of the 326 boys in the school on July I, 1913, 110 came from homes in which either one or both parents had died, and 36 from homes in which one or both had deserted, and it has already been pointed out that the vast majority come from homes of great poverty. The lack of care resulting from these conditions which were largely responsible for bringing the boys into court and into the school is likely to bring them there again. The children are, of course, young. While the majority of the boys committed are twelve and thirteen years old, there are each year considerable numbers of boys of eight, nine, and ten years old. It is not a matter of surprise if, when the home conditions are unsatisfactory, the old habits reappear when these very young boys are returned after a few months of care and discipline and it is found necessary again to take them away from the old conditions and the old surroundings.

It has been said that these boy., are committed to the school on a kind of indeterminate sentence with a minimum commitment of four weeks. Since they are of such different ages and come from such different home conditions, it is found necessary to keep some of them much longer than others.

(169) Table XIX shows for the boys committed during one representative year the number of months spent in the Parental School on their first commitment. According to these figures, 58 per cent of the boys committed during a single year remained at the school between four and six months; 25 per cent remained longer than six months; very few remained more than nine months., and 17 per cent remained less than four months.

Table XIX Number of Months Spent in Parental School on First Commitment by 471 Boys Committed During a Single Year
Number of Months Boys
Number Percentage
1 and less than 2 26 6
2 and less than 3 14 3
3 and less than 4 39 8
4 and less than 5 144 30
5 and less than 6 130 28
6 and less than 7 50 11
7 and less than 8 33 7
8 and less than 9 15 3
9 and less than 10 7 1
10 and less than 11 4 1
11 and less than 12 5 1
12 and over 4 1
     Total* 471 100

*The correct total of boys committed during the year was 473, but the 
total is given as 471 instead Of 473 because the records of two boys could not 
be found. The data given are for the year ending June 30, 1910.

With regard to the effect of Parental School care on the conduct of the boys committed, the statement of the superintendent is to the effect that "80 to go per cent of the boy- make good" and that " the object of the school is accomplished in fully 85 per cent of the cases,", but obviously no such quantitative

(170) measure can be accepted. The question of the effect of the Parental School treatment upon the boys who are sent there cannot be measured by any statistical tests. Certain definite facts are available with regard to the number of boys returned for violation of parole, but it must be pointed out that the return of a paroled boy is the result of careful follow-up work on the part of the Parental School authorities. It would be easy, if their methods were lax, to show a negligible percentage of returns. Of the 471 boys committed during 1909-10, the year for which figures are available, 119 had been returned to the school for violation of parole up to April, 1912; of these 19 had been twice returned. Of the remainder, 65 were discharged from the school because the age limit had been reached and they could not be placed on parole at all, and I 12 others were discharged for age during parole. That is, 294 boys were under fourteen years of age and therefore eligible for return, and 1 19, or 40 per cent of these, were returned.

That so large a proportion of boys were returned for violating their paroles would suggest the economy of supplementing the work of the school, which deals only with the child, by some agency for dealing with parents and the home or with the neighborhood to which the child is to be returned. These figures merely confirm and give a quantitative value to the series of cases cited in the preceding chapters. The school cannot, in the nature of things, undo the consequences of the earlier experiences of the child, nor in all cases render him immune to the harmful influences that lie about his home and the neighborhood in which he lives. In the cases of many children the influence of the Parental School is completely successful, and in the case of some, it might be possible to secure the needed discipline with even less stringent treatment.

In the course of the visits of our investigators to the homes of the truant boys, the mothers were asked whether or not they had ever visited the Parental School and what they thought

(171) of the training the boys received there. It appeared that in more than go per cent of the cases, the mother or someone from the family had gone to see the boy during his detention. On the whole, the mothers who visited the school-and nearly three hundred of them did visit their boys while they were there -were very much pleased with it, and expressed their approval of the training the boys received there. One stepmother, in fact, said, "the place was much too good" for the boys who went there, and one mother objected that it was such a nice place that it made the boys want to go back.

Testimony to the effect that the boy's conduct had improved after his return was almost universal. Now and then, of course, a mother insisted that her boy had been committed to the school only because of the malice of the teacher or the truant officer, and maintained that he had always been so good that there was no room for improvement in his conduct. Sometimes, too, the mothers explained that the boys had been released because they were "of age," and now that they had gone to work there could be, obviously, no further trouble about school attendance. But more than two-thirds of all the mothers interviewed believed that the discipline at the school had been a kind of moral tonic and that the boy's conduct had shown a distinct improvement after his return. More than one mother who thought that her boy had begun to show signs of a moral relapse spoke with great feeling of his improved conduct just after he returned from the school and wished that he were not too old to be sent back, as she feared he was drifting into his "old ways" and was again in need of disciplinary treatment for a time.

It was a common experience for the investigator to be told by the mother of the boy's superior "manners" after his release. "He always gets a chair for me to sit down and never used to"; " He always hangs up his clothes now and puts his things away"; and " They'll learn 'em to do, there what you can't learn 'em at home," were the comments frequently heard.

(172) One boy "came home fat" and was "so good" to her, his mother said, until he lost his job and got into some new difficulty. Another boy who was " wild and crazy " before going to the school came back " steady " and " cleaned the house nicely " when his mother asked him to. Another mother, equally appreciative of improved domestic habits, thought the school had "done everything" for her boy; "when he came home," she said, " you should see him, he kept so clean, set chairs for me, and gave the lady a seat in the car"; of course, she said, she " couldn't always keep him like that, but never yet since his return" had he made any trouble that she knew of. Another mother noted that her boy had not yet gone back to his old gang, and he had been home so long she had begun to lose her fear that he would rejoin the old companions who had been in part, at least, responsible for "his trouble." One mother said that the Parental School was a fine place for boys because "they'll do there what they won't do at home"; another explained that her boy used to "chase the streets, and someone had to go out at night and hunt him" before he was sent away, but after he came home from the Parental School he "stayed at home evenings and was nice about the house." Even the briefer expressions of appreciation such as "Oh, he learned a lot" or "He minds better now," which were so common, were significant.

The fact that out of nearly three hundred "Parental School mothers" who were interviewed, not one had anything but kindly appreciation of the school's work and influence is an unusual tribute to the fine work which is being done there.

In many cities the formation of special "truant rooms" has been adopted as another method of dealing with certain types of truant boys. In Chicago the first experiment of this kind was the fitting-out of a room at the Jenner School with work benches and other facilities for handwork and with twenty-four desks for study. A teacher especially adapted for dealing

(173) with difficult and unruly boys was placed in charge, and twenty-four boys from various schools were sent back to their homes by the judge of the Juvenile Court, but with the understanding that they were to go to this truant room instead of to their old places in school. In discussing the experiment, a recent report of the Board of Education said, " For the first time the boys became conscious of the power of the state to control their actions; they lived at home and were all anxious to return to their own schools, which they could do after several months of approved good behavior."

This first truant room in Chicago was established eight years ago, and eleven other such rooms have since been opened. In so far as the truant room is used as a substitute for commitment to the Parental School, a very considerable economy is effected, since obviously the cost of the maintenance of the children at the Parental School is very high compared with the cost of educating the child coming from his own home to the ordinary sessions of the day schools. On the other hand it should be remembered that the use of the truant rooms must be definitely restricted to the boys who come from homes where the conditions are favorable and that the boy whose greatest need is to be taken out of an unfavorable or demoralizing home environment cannot be helped by a transfer to a truant room.

Table XX shows the estimated average per capita cost of the Parental School children as compared with the average cost of the children in the regular grades. The per capita cost in the "truant room" is of course higher than the average per capita cost as given below.

The difference between the per capita cost in the Parental School and in the elementary school is very great, and- it is scarcely necessary to explain that this difference pays for the support of the child, except for the clothing which the parents are required to furnish, as well as for his schooling, and that this support is on a level of decency and comfort that is


Table XX Cost of Maintenance and Per Capita Cost in the Chicago Parental School, 1902-14, Compared With Average per Capita Cost in the Elementary Schools
Compiled from Annual Reports of the Chicago Board of Education.)
Year Parental School Total Cost of Maintenance Parental School Average Membership Parental School Annual per Capital Cost Average Cost per Capita in Chicago Elementary School
1901-02 $37,223.46 $87 $427.85 $27.92
1902-03 60,161.96 154 390.66 26.31
1903-04 69,777.80 188 371.15 28.16
1904-05 73,159.65 208 351.73 27.85
1905-06 78,815.34 212 371.77 27.57
1906-07 77,336.84 217 356.39 29.44
1907-08 80,608.72 253 318.58 28.84
1908-09 87,448.73 263 332.62 32.60
1909-10 86,818.51 298 291.82 32.77
1910-11 89,812.02 303 296.70 34.40
1911-12 80,521.29 313 257.50 35.11
1912-13 91,141.79 322 297.69 36.62
1913-14 90,347.17 313 288.46 37.90

vastly superior to the standard maintained in the homes from which the majority of the children come. For example, each boy has, as one mother put it, " a little white bed all to himself." It also pays for a longer period of instruction, since the per capita cost for the Parental School is based on membership for twelve months, while the ordinary day school lasts less than ten. And there are additional and costly features of manual and agricultural training in the Parental School to which reference has already been made.

Two points should be made in this connection. The first is that treatment in the Parental School is too costly, both in pain of enforced separation to the parents and children and in dollars and cents to the city, to be used for cases that could be handled successfully in other ways. If an agency could be developed by which the home could be so dealt with as to do

(175) away with causes of the child's irregularity, and so reduce the number of boys committed and recommitted to the Parental School, it might pay for itself. It is admitted, however, that a skilful agency of the kind referred to would probably discover many more cases than are known today for whose treatment the aid of the court and of the Parental School would be invoked. And the second point is that when an institution can render such efficient and valuable service to children in need of such care, it is most unjust that any who are in need should fail to benefit. This injustice is most flagrant in the case of girl truants. Attention is called elsewhere to the difference between the non-attending boy who becomes a nuisance and the non-attending girl who may be a drudge or who may in fact be the victim of demoralizing experiences while she is out of school.

Obviously, however, the failure to receive the benefits of the school intended for her are as serious in the case of the girl as of the boy, if not more serious. Table XXI, which has been compiled from the reports of the Superintendent of Compulsory Education, shows that he has had to serve notices in the cases

Table XXI Number and Sex of Truants Dealt With by the Chicago Department of Compulsory Education, 1906-14
Year ending June 30 Number
1906 4,750 151 4,901
1907 3,004 266 3,270
1908 3,291 119 3,413
1909 2,942 112 3,054
1910 3,482 132 3,614
1911 4,086 144 4,230
1912 3,651 150 3,801
1913 3,577 210 3,787
1914 3,241 158 3,399
Total 32,027 1,442 33,469

(176) of nearly 1300 girls during the years 1906-14. Although, according to this table, nearly 1,500 girls or their parents have been "warned" concerning the compulsory attendance law, only 37 girls have been brought into the juvenile Court.[8] Moreover, since there is no cottage for girls at the Parental School, it is useless to bring them before the court, as there is no opportunity for commitment and a reproof is of little effect. In an earlier study of the wards of the Juvenile Court[9] attention was called to the illiterate condition of girls brought into court as delinquent. Emphasis was then expressly laid on the fact that more perfect rather than less perfect machinery is needed for dealing with truant girls than for dealing with truant boys, because there is the greater temptation to exploit them in the home and because it was found that the delinquent illiterate girls come from poorer homes than those from which the boys come. The superintendent of compulsory education had already called attention in 1907 to the increase in the number of truant girls and of delinquent girls. Now, as then, however, so far as the advantages of the Parental School are concerned, the girl is wholly neglected, and, except so far as prosecutions in the Municipal Court may bring pressure to bear on a certain group of parents,[10] the truant girl is uncared for until she comes before the juvenile Court as delinquent.


  1. See chap. ix, " Non-Attendance at the Source," p. 146.
  2. See chap. v, "Parallel Development of Child Labor and Compulsory Education Laws," p. 86.
  3. Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 122, secs. 144, 145.
  4. See chap. x, "The Habitual Truant and the Schoolroom Incorrigible," Table XIV, "Number of Boys Committed to the Parental School, 1902-15."
  5. Annual reports of the Board of Education of Chicago, 1909-10, p. 33; 1910-11, p. 133; 1911-12, p. 183; 1913-14, p. 417.
  6. Sixtieth Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago (1913-14), see p. 14.
  7. Sixtieth Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago (1913-14), p. 382.
  8. See chap. x, Table XII.
  9. The Delinquent Child and the Home, pp. 143-45.
  10. See chap. xiv, " Enforcement of the Compulsory Education Law in the Municipal Court," p. 205.

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