- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2011

After millions of dollars in infrastructure investment and years of sharply scrutinized teacher performance, D.C. officials say it’s time for students to step up their game this school year.

“We are expecting great things from you,” schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told an assembly of ninth-graders Monday at Eastern High School in a joint appearance with Mayor Vincent C. Gray to mark the first day of classes.

For many D.C. students, a step toward achievement will start with simply showing up. The truancy “crisis” among D.C. students has been a major talking point for city officials in recent years, based on data that links chronically absent students with higher crime, unemployment and a financial burden on taxpayers in the form of social services.

Mr. Gray, in his State of the District speech delivered in March from the same Eastern High stage, said that despite “all the educational building blocks we are establishing, there still remains the one cross-cutting threat: truancy.” Weeks later, a D.C. Council Special Committee on School Safety and Truancy released a report on the widespread problem shortly before its chairman, Sekou Biddle, was voted off the council in a special election.

The report found that 13 percent of D.C. high school students missed at least 15 days of school without a valid excuse during the first half of the 2010-2011 year. These “chronic truants” skipped school for a variety of reasons, including unsafe routes to and from home, bullying, teen dating violence, lack of proper attire or not having Metro fare.

Keith Erickson plays with his 5-year-old daughter, Emily, as students andn parents arrive Monday morning.
Keith Erickson plays with his 5-year-old daughter, Emily, as students andn parents ... more >

City officials insist the issue has not fallen by the wayside, as students begin a new school year and officials collect new data on whether their anti-truancy efforts are working. The mayor’s office is using a mixed bag of targeted programs and advertising campaigns to reach out to students, while the council considers an ambitious bill to reform how the city monitors student behavior and attendance.

This summer, the mayor’s office began a pilot program through the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative to visit the homes of 54 students — 34 rising high school freshmen and 20 students who were repeating the ninth grade — of Anacostia Senior High School and Ballou High School. Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright said the visits, aimed at students with truancy records and intended to stress the importance of school attendance, were well received by the families.

Mr. Wright said the city will examine attendance records this year and follow up with the targeted students to see whether their efforts have been effective in stemming truancy.

As part of a parallel media campaign, students can send a text to receive wake-up calls for school from Darian “Big Tigger” Morgan of BET fame, Mr. Wright said. City officials also rolled out the “What time is it?” campaign, which visited recreation centers and other locales to alert students and their families to the start of school and registration and immunization deadlines.

Ms. Henderson said schools officials also are considering a reward system that allows young people who improve their attendance record to come to a concert that honors high-achieving students.

D.C. public schools are required to have an attendance committee that monitors attendance, DCPS spokesman Frederick Lewis said. The school system also uses a computer program known as the Attendance Intervention Module to identify students who are frequently absent.

In the legislative branch, all signs point to a pending piece of legislation, the South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial Act of 2011, as the centerpiece of the D.C. Council’s anti-truancy efforts.

The bill introduced by council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, seeks to use behavioral health monitoring to prevent violent acts by D.C. youth. Its anti-truancy measures include attendance conferences for truant students and a significant reduction in the total number of unexcused absences allotted to each student “to ensure that students who should be in school are in school,” a spokesman for Mr. Catania said.

The legislation appears to have widespread support on the council. Two other council members introduced the bill alongside Mr. Catania and four others have joined on as co-sponsors. Although the bill addresses behavioral health issues — Mr. Catania is chairman of the council’s Committee on Health — the bill has been retained by the Committee of the Whole, which oversees educational matters.

The council’s special committee on truancy also cited Mr. Catania’s bill among key pieces of legislation last spring.

Story Continues →