- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

A D.C. Council member who oversees city schools said yesterday that she wants an explanation from school system officials about whether recent truancy rates submitted to the federal government can be trusted.

“We need to know the extent of the truancy problem,” said council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation. “The other issue that gets raised is the quality of the data. If the truancy figures are bad, then what other data is bad?”

Mrs. Patterson said she plans to press school officials about truancy next week during a scheduled council oversight hearing. So far, school system officials have declined to elaborate on concerns about the statistics.

The Washington Times last month reported that D.C. school officials submitted an overall truancy rate of 23.45 percent to the federal government under No Child Left Behind Act requirements last year. City elementary schools had a 20.77 truancy rate, and high schools a 29.72 rate.

Principals of schools with the highest reported truancy rates criticized the data, saying the figures largely reflect long-standing problems with computer systems that keep track of students, poor record-keeping and personnel problems.

For example, Wilson High School, which is regarded as one of the city’s top schools, had a 58 percent truancy rate, with 1,085 truant students during the 2003-04 school year.

But Principal Stephen B. Tarason said 70 students actually were reported truant — a rate of about 4 percent, which is in line with the national average.

In addition, school system officials reported a 70 percent truancy rate at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, one of the city’s best specialized schools. Principal Mitzi Yates said the problem wasn’t a spate of students skipping school, but rather the failure of a school employee to input the data on “a consistent basis.”

The Times reported the principals’ assessments and explanations Monday. City school officials have not returned several calls seeking comment.

Yesterday, teacher, parent and education advocacy groups echoed Mrs. Patterson’s concerns, although they said questions about the data should not undermine recent initiatives to curb truancy.

“Truancy at any level is a problem,” said Nathan Saunders, vice president of the Washington Teachers Union. “The numbers seem off, but we do have a problem. There is clearly a question of whether this information is being analyzed and to what extent it’s affecting education policy.

“We want accurate information, but at the same time, we don’t want to say there isn’t a problem,” Mr. Saunders said.

Darlene Allen, president of the D.C. Parent-Teacher Association, said her members were surprised by the high rates.

“We’re reporting these hard numbers, but are we reviewing them?” she said. “We’re looking pretty bad here.”

Iris Toyer, co-chairwoman of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, an education advocacy group, said questions about the truancy figures reflect “a dysfunctional — at best — infrastructure.”

“I am not going to say there isn’t a problem,” she said. “But I also don’t see whole populations of a school — one-third or half of all the students — being truant. There seems to be a real disconnect between the schools and the administration.”

The District’s truancy rate exceeds that of Prince George’s (1.8 percent), Fairfax (0.6 percent) and Montgomery (0.9 percent) counties.

However, Maryland guidelines call for students to be considered chronically truant if they miss at least 20 percent of the school year — or more than 30 days. In the District, students are chronically truant at 15 days. Virginia’s threshold is six unexcused absences.

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