- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

D.C. public school officials yesterday said their new efforts against truancy — including “aggressive interventions” — have already resulted in 756 families being notified about problems with their children’s attendance.

“I feel this plan has merit and that it will work,” said Raymond Poles, attendance coordinator for the District’s public school system. “I’m assured of this because Dr. [Superintendent Clifford B.] Janey said he is interested in trying to do something about the truancy problem, in addition to Mayor Anthony Williams.”

The revised policy started on the first day of school and includes three major changes.

Students are allowed only five unexcused absences in each of the school year’s four advisory periods before officials request a conference with parents. The second significant change is a student with 10 days of unexcused absences in a period is referred to the city’s Child and Family Services agency.

“We do not know if neglect or abuse is taking place,” Mr. Poles said. “This is a way to determine what is going on in the home.”

He also said the conferences will include working with parents and students to develop an attendance plan.

The third change is that students with 15 such absences are referred to the city’s truancy court.

The process begins with a call home the first time a student is absent without a legitimate excuse. The school system defines an excused absence in a new brochure to parents as: an illness, observing a religious holiday, a death in the immediate family or a medical reason such as a doctor’s appointment.

School officials began implementing the changes in the elementary schools and will bring them to middle, junior and high schools in the 2005-2006 school year.

“Research indicates that school attendance concerns in lower school continues through the secondary levels,” Mr. Poles said.

The school system has about 62,000 students in about 150 schools, not including special education and other schools.

District officials have acknowledged a truancy problem, so much so that the D.C. Council proposed emergency legislation in April that would have required police to notify the superintendent when a student was charged with serious offenses on or off school grounds.

The legislation was defeated, but it also would have allowed principals to remove students from schools if they committed a crime and posed a threat to themselves and classmates.

The Washington Times reported in April that several District high schools said 20 percent or more of their students were truant during the 2001-2002 school year, the only year for which complete data were available.

The Times also reported that 5,790 of the 86,449 students in D.C. schools, or 6.7 percent, were truant during that period. At that time, 1,836 of the District’s 12,022 high school students, or 15.3 percent, were truant. The records also are unreliable because they have a “25 percent error rate,” D.C. school officials said.

Comparing truancy rates among school systems is complicated because they use different reporting methods. For example, Virginia classifies students as “habitually truant” when they miss seven nonconsecutive days of school without an excuse. In Maryland, the cutoff number is nine.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act should improve such comparisons because it states school systems will lose federal funding if they fail to track truancy school by school and report it that way, instead of by county, district or grade level.

Still, suburban school systems reported lower truancy rates than in the District.

Montgomery, Prince George’s and Fairfax counties had a total of 5,712 truants in the 1999-2000 school year and 7,113 in 2002-2003 — a 24.5 percent increase. As a percentage of the counties’ total school populations, the truancy rate increased from 1.3 percent to 1.6 percent during the four-year period.

The District’s decision to intervene more quickly was made in August by the Board of Education. It followed a series of meetings with officials from Child and Family Services, the Metropolitan Police Department, the office of the attorney general, the mayor’s office and D.C. Superior Court. They plan to meet again Monday. Mr. Janey was hired as superintendent in mid-August but officially started work Sept. 15.

“The focus [now] is elementary school students, but we are dealing with all students at all grade levels,” Mr. Poles said. “Last year, we visited all of our high schools and had conversations with principals about attendance at their schools. This school year, we are visiting junior high and middle schools and we are being proactive beyond what the Board of Education wants.”

Reginald Ballard, principal of Cardozo High School in Northwest, applauded the new truancy policy.

He said two employees have already started visiting homes, three weeks into the school year, to find out about students who have not shown up at all or to learn more about those who have missed one day of class.

“I think [the revised policy] can be even tougher,” he said. “This is just the beginning to ensure that students are successful. If you don’t have children in the classroom, you cannot improve literacy. I hope we put more teeth into this.”

He also welcomed the help of city police, particularly the officers who drive around and pick up students not in school by 9 a.m.

“This has been very successful,” Mr. Ballard said.

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