- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2005

Three principals of D.C. high schools with the city’s highest truancy rates say the data submitted to the federal government by the public school system are wrong.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Stephen P. Tarason, principal of Wilson Senior High School in Northwest. “We send 89 percent of our seniors to two- and four-year colleges, and yet now have a 58 percent truancy rate? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s absolutely impossible.”

Mr. Tarason’s comments were echoed by other principals, who said the school system’s truancy figures are unreliable because of long-standing problems with computer systems that keep track of students.

D.C. schools officials did not return several calls seeking comment.

Those same officials last year reported an average truancy rate of 23.46 percent to the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act. City elementary schools had an average 20.77 percent truancy rate, and high schools a 29.72 rate.

The Washington Times reported about the truancy figures earlier this month.

If the principals’ accounts are accurate, the District has sent erroneous data to the federal government, which could affect how much federal education funding city schools receive.

Widely regarded as one of the city’s best, Wilson Senior High School had one of the highest truancy rates — 58.62 percent — in the school system’s report. The high school had 1,085 truants last year, according to the report.

“I don’t know how they came up with that number,” said Mr. Tarason, whose school boasts the highest standardized test scores of the city’s comprehensive high schools.

Other principals also said they were unaware of the truancy figures the school system reported to the federal government.

Mr. Tarason said his school’s computer system last year issued an attendance report that did not distinguish between excused and unexcused absences, resulting in higher truancy figures. When school officials learned of the problem, they manually reviewed student records last spring and determined that 70 students were actually truant, he said.

“Seventy students is still high, but it’s not nearly as high as the report said,” Mr. Tarason said.

With 70 truants, Wilson’s truancy rate would be about 4 percent to 5 percent.

City schools officials were unavailable to comment on the discrepancy. Neither Mr. Tarason nor any other principal interviewed for this report could produce documents supporting their positions about their schools’ truancy rates.

At Wilson, students each morning swipe their photo identification cards in a computer scanner that registers their attendance. The computer system counts absent students as being absent without an excuse.

Only when a student reports to the attendance office with an excuse does an attendance officer log onto the system to ensure the student is not counted as truant, said Mr. Tarason, who earned a $102,603 salary last year, according to 2004 school system payroll data.

Meanwhile, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown — which had a 70.3 percent truancy rate last year — has been one of the city’s best specialized high schools and sends the overwhelming majority of its seniors to college , Principal Mitzi Yates said.

“Unfortunately, the [truancy] data was not input on a consistent basis, and the individual responsible for that is no longer here at Ellington,” said Miss Yates, who earned $115,000 in 2003, according to school system salary data.

At the Luke C. Moore Academy, which had a truancy rate of 68.35 percent, Principal Reginald B. Elliott said technological problems probably overestimated his school’s truancy problem by at least 20 percent.

But he added that, despite the computer problems, a truancy problem still exists in his school.

The academy is a “second chance” school that teaches students who had problems at other larger high schools, and it is more prone to truancy problems than other schools, Mr. Elliott said.

Mr. Elliott, who also earned $102,603, said that many of his students return to other high schools, but still they continue to be counted as truant just by not showing up at his school.

“The whole process is riddled with errors,” he said. “These computers don’t talk to each other. The system is up and down all the time. It would be impossible to go back and correct all this.

“We’re in the current school year and we have current challenges. We just don’t have the staff, time or money to go back,” he said.

The District’s truancy rate far exceeds that of Prince George’s County (1.8 percent), Fairfax County (0.6 percent) and Montgomery County (0.9 percent), The Times reported last week.

However, Maryland doesn’t count students as truant until they miss 20 percent of the school year — or more than 30 days. The District labels students “chronically truant” at 15 unexcused absences. Virginia counts students are truant with six unexcused absences.

Mr. Tarason said that when city school officials eventually correct his school’s truancy figures “you’ll see an incredibly dramatic drop in truancy at Wilson.”

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