- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2011

Check this out.

There’s a girl in the D.C. foster care system who has not attended classes at all this school year. Imagine that. Looks like the silent epidemic claims another child.

What will she become once she’s all grown up?

A: A couch potato who sucks up daytime television’s baby-daddy-mama drama.

B: A successful and caring mom who juggles career and home life.

C: A struggling mom who makes sure her kids go to school and do their homework.

D: None of the above.

This girl, a topic of discussion during a D.C. hearing on school truancy on Wednesday, is not a truant, a kid who ambles into and out of schoolhouses when in the mood.

No, the anecdotal storyline, which was relayed at the hearing by D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander, makes it sound like this girl, who I’ll refer to as Girl T (as in troubled), is either a dropout or in serious domestic trouble. Either way she needs to be rescued.

Kids drop out of school because we let them.

We make up excuses — peer pressure, family problems, illness, pregnancy, substance abuse, boredom and self-esteem. Bureaucrats call them “pervasive underlying issues.”

Pull an excuse out of the air, and a bureaucrat will add it to the list.

And when it comes to throwing resources at the dropout problem, the D.C. government, like most bureaucracies, is as splintered and resourceful as they come.

There are several agencies — city police and transit police, school officials and child welfare officials — responsible for corralling youths who aren’t in school and shoveling them back into class.

By school and police officials’ count, Girl T and 12,000 other D.C. students have at least 15 days of unexcused absences so far this year, and 4,705 of them wound up in the hands of police.

Some of the kids “we can’t ID,” Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier testified, and sometimes the youths are “picked up in the commission of a crime.”

Their favorite offense? “Burglaries,” the chief said.

The person chiefly responsible for keeping track of school-age youths is Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Michelle Rhee’s replacement. Ms. Henderson said the protocols for red-lighting truancy include letters and phone calls to parents and guardians.

Questions from Sekou Biddle, the lawmaker who chaired the hearing, and Ms. Alexander also touched on parental accountability, and on that issue Ms. Henderson said something quite telling.

“Many of our parents aren’t able to be good parents, quite frankly, because we failed them as students,” she said.

Well, not really. Schools can’t teach parenting.

Indeed, public schools make for a poor substitute while poor schooling makes for another excuse.

But Ms. Henderson also said that “if the instruction that’s happening in a classroom is not engaging and relevant, you want to pluck your eyelashes out.”

It’s great to hear her be so frank, but honestly, that doesn’t make me any less concerned about the untold number of Girl T’s and their enablers.

Dropouts and so-called chronic truants like Girl T are part and parcel of the silent epidemic that, because we haven’t thrown down the gauntlet on the front end, we end up paying on the other end.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, which examined the class of 2006-07, nationally, we will lose an estimated $329 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity over the lifetimes of dropouts.

These are not kids who cut class to rent “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

And while some dropouts — such as Aretha Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Ansel Adams and Jack Kent Cooke — are notable for their achievements versus what they didn’t do, can you imagine Girl T growing up to be on par with any of them?

To Ms. Henderson’s credit, she did say this, too: “The truth of the matter is we need to go get her and bring her to school.”

Watch this space, because action speaks louder than words.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.