- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 1999

Some District of Columbia school officials want parents of the worst truants to be fined or ordered to perform community service after a surprise attendance audit showed three high schools with nearly half of the students absent.
Reasons for absenteeism ranged from sleeping late and baby-sitting siblings to increasingly popular “skip” parties. Some students say they fear for their lives.
Diane Powell, director of the school system’s student intervention services branch, said counselors try to intervene early but have difficulty getting parents to cooperate.
“As a school district, we are doing every single thing in our power to get families to work with us, but in some instances you will absolutely need to prosecute,” she said.
“We do not have any enforcement in this city,” Ms. Powell said.
The audit on Oct. 7 found more than 47 percent of students at Spingarn High were not in school that day, nor were 46 percent of students at Ballou High in Southeast and nearly 43 percent of students at Shaed Elementary in Northeast. Thirty percent were not in class at Moten Elementary in Southeast.
Ten other schools had absentee rates of more than 20 percent, and 11.5 percent, or almost 8,000, of the city’s school system’s 70,762 students were absent.
Many of the missing students are still in bed when school begins and wander into class about 10:30 a.m., Ms. Powell said. Others stay home because they have to baby-sit for younger siblings.
Students offer other reasons for cutting classes.
Spingarn High senior Eugene Jacobs, 18, thinks it is “because it is too cold in the building, or too hot. Some of these schools have no heat or air.”
Others are afraid to go to school, said freshman Marquerite Womack. “They feel their life is threatened,” she said.
Yet, two weeks ago, D.C. police officers picked up 20 students having what teen-agers call a “skip” party during the school day. The students held it in an empty building across from the Carter Barron Amphitheater on Colorado Avenue in Northwest.
Officials with D.C. Superior Court, where the worst truants are referred, say they do not have much to enforce since the school system reports very few cases of chronic absenteeism to the court.
The names of only 21 habitual school skippers have been reported to the court’s social services division so far this year, said Moses McAllister, director of the department.
The court offers counseling and other services aimed at getting the child back into the classroom.
“Obviously there is something that is not right with cases not coming to our attention as they should be,” Mr. McAllister said.
The audit, requested by the financial control board, was performed by the D.C. accounting firm of Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates.
The firm found actual attendance to be at odds with the official school attendance rates reported last year at least on Oct. 7.
In 1998-1999, school administrators reported a 92 percent attendance rate, equal to Prince George’s County, Md., and better than Baltimore’s 86 percent. Maryland’s numbers were obtained from its State Department of Education.
D.C. school officials said they have put new measures in place this year to track absent students, including a system that automatically calls the parent of an absent child within 24 hours.
Every school has an attendance improvement committee and attendance counselors charged with tracking absenteeism.
If a child misses 20 consecutive days, he is dropped from the system and has to re-enroll
“We fully recognize that we have areas to improve on around truancy and attendance, and we have made that a factor in the evaluation of principals,” said Deputy School Superintendent Elois Brooks.
The Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio audit also documented high numbers of missing children in some of the District’s 27 charter schools.
Officials with the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees some of those schools, said that despite absenteeism rates of 42 percent to 55 percent at some schools, the overall rate of attendance is 89 percent.
“In general, we think the record on absenteeism is pretty good,” said Nelson Smith, the board’s executive director.

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