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20% of D.C. students absent Day 2

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About 20 percent of students enrolled in D.C. public schools were absent on the second day of class this week, according to attendance records provided by school system officials.

Many students who had enrolled were not present because they had not registered for classes, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said last night. It was not clear yesterday how much of the attendance problem was due to students who had not registered on time and how much was due to students who didn't show up for other reasons.

"I think we can improve attendance overall," Mrs. Rhee said. "Attendance is something we can definitely work on."

Records show that about 10,000 of the 51,000 students enrolled Tuesday at 141 schools did not report to classes. Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Rhee, said Tuesday's preliminary enrollment number was 50,542, but only 40,821 of those students reported to school.

Miss Hobson said complete attendance figures were not available for the first day of school because 11 schools and the pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs did not report their attendance. She said computerized reporting of attendance figures will begin next week.

The high number of absences also raises questions about truancy in the District, which has declined in recent years but historically has been a challenge for administrators.

Alton Bigelow, an assistant chief with the Metropolitan Police Department, said police picked up one truant on Monday and nine truants on Tuesday.

"Ten is high," Chief Bigelow said of the number of students police caught skipping classes. "My expectation is that there shouldn't be any."

Chief Bigelow said Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier told the department that truancy is a priority this year. He said at least two squad cars in each of the city's seven police districts are dedicated to patrolling for truants, and all other officers are reminded daily to look for truants.

Nathan A. Saunders, vice president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said that in past years police did not pay enough attention to truancy.

"It's like the implementation of the jaywalking law," he said. "If you have 400 people jaywalking on K Street and only give three tickets, you're not implementing the law."

Mr. Saunders said he thinks police and school officials are being more proactive this year than in previous years, but that high numbers of absences are typical and greatly affect teachers' performance.

"It's impossible to teach a child that is not in the chair," Mr. Saunders said.

Attendance figures from the opening days of school in Montgomery and Prince George's counties were not readily available yesterday. But according to the Maryland State Department of Education, both counties have attendance rates in the 90th percentile for elementary through high school students.

The D.C. public school system runs two detention centers where truant students receive counseling while their parents are notified.

The District defines chronically truant students as those who accumulate 15 or more unexcused absences.

Last year, about 23 percent of secondary-school students and 12 percent of elementary students were chronically truant, compared to about 28 percent of secondary-school students and 16 percent of elementary students the year before.

Former schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey prioritized truancy after the school system reported to the federal government that nearly a quarter of students were truant during the 2003-04 school year.

However, some school principals expressed concerns that the numbers were being reported incorrectly. A review of the data by The Washington Times found in 2005 that truancy numbers were inconsistent with the school system's enrollment, with at least one school reporting more truants than enrolled students.

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