- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

Nearly one out of every four D.C. public school students was chronically truant last year.

The D.C. public school system had a 23.46 percent truancy rate during the 2003-04 school year, meaning that more than 15,000 of its about 65,000 students were absent without an excuse at least 15 days during the year, according to statistics that school officials have submitted to the federal government.

The District uses a different computation for truancy than neighboring jurisdictions; nonetheless, its truancy rate far exceeds that of Prince George’s County (1.8 percent), Fairfax County (0.6 percent) and Montgomery County (0.9 percent).

There is no national standard for how a school district must compile truancy statistics, education experts said. However, the District’s truancy rate is more than four times the national average of 3 percent to 5 percent, said Ken Seeley, president of the National Center for School Engagement, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

D.C. secondary schools had the highest truancy rates, averaging at 29.72 percent. Among the highest: Washington Center at M.M. Washington Career High School, a vocational school in Northwest (75.83 percent); the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a college preparatory school in Georgetown (70.39 percent); and the Luke C. Moore Academy, a high school in Northeast (68.35 percent).

Diane E. Powell, director of student intervention for D.C. public schools, said disclosing the high rates reflects an “aggressive approach” to finding which schools have the worst truancy so officials can resolve the problem.

“We’re not afraid to say this is where we are,” Miss Powell said yesterday. “Part of making a dramatic improvement is being able to say where we are. We certainly have more children attending than not attending. But we want our children back, and we want them in an educational setting that is safe and that is conducive to learning.”

She said the high figures could be the result of reporting errors, and some students being counted as truant in more than one school after transferring.

National education experts say the District’s truancy rate among elementary schools is especially troubling because young truants are more likely to drop out of high school. The average rate in D.C. elementary schools was 20.77 percent.

“Attendance and truancy are your first indicators that a child is going to drop out of school,” said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, a research group. “If you are really serious about improving your graduation rates or achievement levels, you had better get the child in school first.”

D.C. elementary schools with high truancy rates include Green in Southeast (49.06 percent); Noyes in Northeast (43.88 percent); and Wilkinson in Southeast (43.74 percent).

Miss Powell said the school system already has reduced truancy rates in the elementary schools by 45 percent during the first 60 days of the 2004-05 school year, compared with the same period in 2003-04.

She also said the school system has enacted a plan in which officials must contact parents after one unexcused absence.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school districts are required to report truancy rates at each school rather than systemwide. The truancy rate is the percent of all students who were enrolled in a school during the school year who were labeled “chronic truants.”

Still, defining a chronic truant varies widely state to state and sometimes by school district. Maryland and Virginia compute truancy rates differently than the District.

Charles Buckler, program manager for the Maryland Department of Education, said state law defines a chronic truant as a student who is absent without an excuse at least 20 percent of the time during a school year or marking period.

The Baltimore city school system posted the highest truancy rate in Maryland last year at 10.7 percent, or 9,266 of its 86,248 students truant.

Virginia school districts calculate truancy rates based upon the number of students who accumulate six unexcused absences. They then must attend a conference with their parents, said Julie Grimes, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education.

Miss Powell said the District has been working with Metropolitan Police Department to track down truant students.

More than 2,500 D.C. students were picked up in the first five months of the school year, compared with 1,460 in the entire 2003-04 year.

Miss Powell said social workers also are trying to help and recently found a 14-year-old who had never enrolled in school.

Last year, the city’s Board of Education created a truancy task force to help city and school system agencies work together to reduce the truancy rates.

“There has always been a lot of interest in truancy in the District, but there hasn’t always been a lot of coordination,” Mr. Seeley said.

The District also has tightened its truancy policies to help improve problems. As of September, parents have to attend a conference if their child has five unexcused absences during one of the school year’s four marking periods.

In addition,10 unexcused absences result in an automatic referral to the city’s Child and Family Services agency, and families are referred to truancy court when their child has 15 such absences.

So far, 29 parents have been referred to D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert E. Morin, officials said. Twenty-one have pleaded guilty, and sentencing for 18 of them has been deferred until June.

The three parents who chose sentencing were given five to 15 days in jail, ordered to pay $50 in court costs on each charge and placed on unsupervised probation for one year, according to the office of D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti.

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