- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Nearly half the positions in a D.C. public school system division charged with fixing the city’s truancy problem remain vacant despite absence rates that have ranked highest in the region and well above the national average.

Five of the 12 positions in the school system’s office of intervention services are not filled, including the director’s post, according to 2006 school pay records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The vacancies come at a time when the school system is facing questions over its high truancy rates and over whether officials accurately process and report data. School districts are required to report truancy rates under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Last year, school officials came under scrutiny over statistics that showed a citywide truancy rate of 23.46 percent, with more than 20,000 chronically truant students. Students were considered truant if they missed 15 days of school.

But some school principals said the statistics were flawed because of persistent computer foul-ups.

D.C. school officials could not provide updated figures yesterday.

The D.C. Office of the Inspector General last year reported that the implementation of a $4.5 million computer system to help schools better track attendance and truancy has been delayed by funding shortfalls.

D.C. school officials said yesterday that the vacancies in the interventions services office aren’t the result of budget shortfalls.

“They’re doing interviews now, so it shouldn’t be long before all those positions are filled,” said Roxanne Evans, a spokeswoman for the school system.

The intervention services director’s position, which pays $101,058 a year, became vacant when Diane E. Powell was promoted to assistant superintendent. Miss Powell, who now earns $107,509, will continue to oversee intervention services until a director is named, officials said.

Other vacancies include positions for two clinical social workers, each with an annual salary of $71,663.

Miss Evans said the vacancies weren’t unusual because “it takes awhile to get these positions filled, and it’s not always a real quick process.”

“Things are still on track,” she said. “This is a priority.”

But one consultant said a glut of unfilled jobs could undermine some recent progress by the school system and city officials in addressing the problem, including the formation of a task force and an anti-truancy diversion program.

“It’s a strong indicator when schools aren’t filling these types of positions that we’ll see bad outcomes continuing,” said Ken Seeley, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado-based National Center for School Engagement, which has provided consulting to D.C. officials. “It’s a huge problem in other urban school districts, too.”

D.C. officials previously set benchmarks to cut truancy rates to 21 percent last year, 18.5 percent this year and 16 percent next year. By 2008, truancy rates should be 13 percent, according to the school system.

Among new efforts in the District is a program in which children and parents or guardians meet weekly with a D.C. Superior Court judge to talk about how to improve the students’ attendance.

“There seems to be some big gains being made,” said D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation.

“As far as why there are these vacancies, I think that’s a good question,” she added.

Last year, the District’s reported truancy rates were more than triple the national average and far exceeded those of Prince George’s County (1.8 percent), Fairfax County (0.6 percent) and Montgomery County (0.9 percent).

D.C. officials pointed out that each jurisdiction defines truancy differently.

Last year, Maryland didn’t count students as truant until they missed 20 percent of the school year, or more than 30 days. Virginia counted students as truant if they had six unexcused absences.

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