- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

D.C. parents across the city are bracing themselves for the closings this year and next of nearly two dozen schools. The closings are largely the result of declining enrollment in traditional schools, the high costs of maintenance and an unaddressed truancy/dropout problem that forces law enforcers to step into a burgeoning gap caused by inconstant teaching and parenting. Schools officials should be commended for finally getting around to tackling the attendance problem. As school board member William Lockridge told The Washington Times: “We need to know who those kids are who consistently have been truant over the years. We should be targeting them.” The question, though, is whether school authorities will indeed “target” truants.

As things now stand, the Metropolitan Police Department — not parents and schools — are the cog in the ever-spinning wheel of truancy, and that means our chief law enforcers are reduced to data collectors, while, in the meantime, the attendance problem itself remains unattended.

The data speak volumes: During the first month of the 2007-08 school year, police picked up only 34 truant students, but by February the number had ballooned to 996. The statistics, of course, fail to capture the number of school-age children who dodge law enforcers by simply staying indoors. And those stats certainly don’t reflect the three most important factors of truancy and dropout rates: 1) the high costs of having police round up truants; 2) that schools still receive local and federal tax dollars, whether students are there or not; and 3) that aggressively enforcing the law-and-order aspects regarding truants and dropouts (a policy that police are obviously carrying out quite aggressively) proves that parents and teachers are ignoring early warning signs.

There are myriad reasons why ‘tweens and teens skip school for days and weeks at a time — from such legitimate issues as chronic illness to the more nefarious “Ferris Bueller” syndrome. Both are early warning signs, and both can lead to consequences that we all end up paying for. The 2000 census, for example, reported that dropouts had only a 52 percent employment rate compared with an employment rate of 71 percent for high-school grads.

Intervention, then, is key, and in that aspect school authorities might be onto something. Last week, David. A Lipscomb of The Times reported that Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist called for a “unified approach that includes greater involvement from police, schools and family services.” Miss Gist also said: “I think what we need is better coordination and sharing of information and to have a consistent understanding of who owns what responsibilities. There are pieces of work that are good, but the various groups that come into play need to be better organized.” We agree.

Unfortunately, the most important “piece” in a child’s life is missing from the organizational structure outlined by Miss Gist, and that is parents. Indeed, parents generally fall into one of two categories when it comes to truancy: Either they know or they don’t know. Either way, it is incumbent upon schools to notify them.

Whether a child is skipping school here or there, a constant truant or has taken it upon himself to drop out, schools must do a better job of engaging parents. Locking up children (and their parents) does not even begin to address the problem, and growing the bureaucracy in and of itself won’t either. Teachers and principals must sit down with parents and their children in order to tackle the truancy problem head-on — before it becomes a law enforcement problem. Parents and teachers, after all, are the strongest and weakest links.

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