- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2005

It beats D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey whether the system’s runaway truancy rate in 2003 through 2004 is remotely accurate.

It beats D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, the Ward 3 Democrat who oversees the public schools. It beats the various Board of Education members. It beats everyone in the Wilson Building.

This is another uniquely D.C. adventure, in which there are no bad bureaucrats, just confused ones, harried ones and get-to-the-bottom-of-it ones.

See the bureaucrat squirm. Hear the bureaucrat say, “I don’t know.” As usual, when educating the young in the city gets tough, the not-so-tough start scrambling to form committees, search parties, excavation teams and just about anything else that might placate those seeking an answer or two.

This is the customary drill after the city’s national test scores are revealed, whereupon officials try to spin the news that their school system is on par with a California school district whose students employ English as a sixth language.

The way the city’s truancy numbers read, all too many school principals have a whole lot of explaining to do, if only because they appear to be presiding over ghostlike classrooms. Take the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where future cast members of “Hair, Part IV” pursue an artistic vision on the grounds of what used to be Western High School.

The truancy rate there is reported to be 70 percent. Let’s do the math: That means, in a classroom of 20, Teacher A would be preaching to a choir of six. A couple of six-student class days should be enough to send most teachers sprinting to the principal’s office with serious concerns.

Either there is a nasty strain of the flu going around, or Duke Ellington’s students believe in the osmosis method of education.

Here’s the good news/bad news element of the numbers, as only it can be in the city: No one really believes in the numbers, with the possible exception of the schools superintendent, because a 23.46 percent overall truancy rate hardly jibes with the 65,099-student enrollment figure in 2003 through 2004. At that percent, the D.C. schools would have had 88,853 students, which, of course, they did not. Then again, you never know with the D.C. public school system.

It could be teachers are making a list of the absent and not checking it twice, or making a list of the absent and counting the absent twice, or just pulling a number out of the air. It is so very confusing.

Perhaps teachers still are monitoring the attendance of students who graduated 10 years ago. Perhaps Dudley Moore is on the attendance roll of one of the high schools. After all, the one-time funnyman, dead though he is, signed a petition in support of the mayor in the last election. And dead is forevermore in a city of a high number of public servants who function at the level of those in “Night of the Living Dead.” Mr. Janey, who is new to the mysterious business of the D.C. schools, is trying to figure it all out. He is not ready to embrace the truancy numbers. Nor is he ready to dismiss them. He needs time to crunch the reports. He needs time “to put a team together.” He needs time to grab hold of everything before he can say, unequivocally, what is what and what is not, which is the D.C. way of letting the heat pass.

For now, we are left with this: Nearly one in four students in the city is a truant. But do not despair. The city is only kidding, elbowing you in the ribs. The number is probably more like one in five or one in six or one in whatever.

The city’s public school system, as always, is in line with Bobby McFerrin’s philosophy, which is: “Don’t worry, be happy.” If all else fails, today’s truant is tomorrow’s car jockey. Or worse.

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