- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 1999

Accountability is supposed to be a hallmark of school reform. If students and teachers fail to reach certain academic thresholds, parents are not especially pleased. When a school's leadership and other critical factors, such as substandard facilities and poor attendance, fall below expectations, the principal's job should be on the line. Several D.C. principals lost their jobs in recent years because of mediocrity or worse, no reform at all. Now it seems others should face similar consequences because local schools are facing a raft of problems ranging from poor performance to truancy.

Four D.C. public schools have unconscionable absentee rates, and some students are habitually skipping school, according to an audit. In about two dozen instances, the names of habitual truants were forwarded to D.C. Superior Court's social service officials, hoping to engage the students and their parents in returning the children back to school. And that is as things should be.

The D.C. Council amended the truancy and compulsory school laws a few years back. The compulsory school-age law says all children between five and 18 years old must attend school. The truancy law allows police officers to detain any school-age youth during school hours. In worst-case scenarios that land in court, parents of truant students can be fined $100 or spend up to five days in jail for failing to ensure their children attend school, or face mandatory community service. Given the high truancy rates, forcing such parents to attend classes with their children, as is permitted in Baltimore, wouldn't be an altogether bad idea either.

According to the attendance audit, which was conducted in October, 30 percent of students at Moten Elementary School were absent, and 43 percent of youngsters who attend Shaed Elementary in Northeast were absent. Two high schools fared worse. Spingarn High, near RFK Stadium, had 47 percent absenteeism, while 46 percent of the students at Ballou High were not in school. Whether one views the attendance problem as a half-empty school house, or one that is half-full, the problem is nonetheless disturbing.

There is no plausible argument for schools to allow this level of truancy, which is bound to aggravate already poor academic performance. Test scores at Moten, for example, show that children who do attend class are struggling with reading and math. So says a comprehensive school profile released in February that shows 66 percent of fifth-graders and 61 percent of fourth graders scored below basic levels in math. And, although reading skills were a smidgen better, there were still too many failures. Some 58 percent of fourth graders and 44 percent of fifth graders scored below basic in reading.

What must be weighed as well are these statistics: Moten's school profile says only 57 percent of parents believe their the school keeps them informed about their children's progress, and only 68 percent believe teachers work together to do what "is best for kids." The parental outlook at Ballou is even more pathetic. A mere 13 percent of Ballou parents said their child's school "is a safe place," and only 38 percent of parents said the school keeps them informed about their children's progress. This at a school whose students last year told this page that students, not the teachers and principals, rule at Ballou.

So there you have it. Youngsters who skip school with little or no consequences, school officials who discourage parental involvement in education and test scores that prove teaching even basic skills is elusive. Where is the reform? Where is the accountability? Where are the principals and other school officials?

At this juncture high-ranking school officials must draw the line. Principals must come down harder by routinely contacting parents and informing the courts of habitual truants, and the courts and police must crack down hard, too. After all, if neither parents nor students are engaged in any school, then principals and teachers are not doing their jobs. And, essentially, if they are not doing their jobs, then they do not earn their paychecks.

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