The Rev. Anthony Motley knows a thing or two about being truant.
“I was a truant twice. The first time after I got home, the truant officer was sitting in my living room,” the retired educator told his amused audience. “The second time after I skipped, the next day my pastor was sitting in my classroom,” he said to resounding laughter.
But having people other than his mother – who worked a full-time job admonish the mischievous youth for his indifference toward school, not only embarrassed him, it made Motley realize the seriousness of his actions.
“We’ve got to go into these homes. We’ve got to sit with these parents,” said Motley, whose sentiments were shared by the diverse crowd of more than 100 people. Despite the cold winds and steady rain, teachers, ministers, parents, students and community activists showed up Feb. 23 at Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast with their attention focused on one thing: the truancy crisis in the District.
“Truancy is a complicated issue . . . however, it’s a core value that also affects graduation rates,” said panelist Ian Roberts, principal at Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast, who added that truancy is most rampant among ninth-graders. Roberts said that among reasons cited for students’ refusal to come to school are transportation issues and their parents’ job schedules.
As a result of having to get younger siblings ready for school, older children are often late, which in many cases has led to truancy, he said.
The two-hour forum was sponsored by the Hillcrest Civic Association and moderated by president, De’Andre Anderson. Other panelists for the meeting that attracted primarily residents from the affluent Hillcrest community where Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other city officials live, included District Family Court Judge Zoe Bush, D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), Beers Elementary counselor Jeffrey Brown, and Adele Fabrikant, who participated on behalf of Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
Truancy generally begins at the middle school level, and in D.C., students who miss at least 10 days of unexcused absences are classified as truant.
However, among the 2,000 students who are marked truant each day, a growing number are enrolled in elementary schools.
“It starts at that level, [increasing by] grade six and getting worse by the ninth-grade,” Fabrikant said.
Fabrikant also emphasized that reducing truancy is a shared responsibility, and that the chancellor is fully committed to providing resources needed to reduce the numbers.
Stating that the school day for D.C. students begins at 8:45 a.m. until 3:15 p.m., Fabrikant said there are specific guidelines school officials have to abide by in determining excused and unexcused absences.
She said however, that students who miss at least 60 percent of the school day will receive an unexcused absence for the entire day; and parents of students with five unexcused absences will be asked to participate in a truancy conference. Elementary and middle school students with 10 unexcused absences will be referred to the District’s Family and Child Services Agency for suspected educational neglect, and from there cases can end up in court.
“Very often, judges are constants in young people’s lives and we have dedicated and well-trained judges [to deal with truant students],” said Bush, who’s presided over the District’s Family Court for the past three years. “The judge is that person who pushes others to provide youth with the support and services they need to [offset truancy which is aligned with poverty],” Bush said. “But [we] can’t wait to cure poverty to address truancy, as one issue is just as complex as the other.”
Bush added that there are no simple solutions to eradicating truancy but with parents, teachers and school administrators and communities working together, the issue can be effectively dealt with.
“With real energy and focus, I think this is something that we can really turn around, although it will take a while,” Bush said.
Catania, who chairs the council’s education committee, believes one way to deal with truant middle schoolers is to bring in young mentors who students can more easily relate to. He also noted that home visits are helpful in determining barriers to school attendance, and that in many instances the visits have helped to improve attendance and test scores.
But while Catania said about 70 percent of parents have no legitimate reason for their children’s chronic absenteeism, Motley, also a family counselor, countered that most of the parents Catania referred to, know why their children are truant but won’t say so.
“Nine times out of 10 those parents don’t want to reveal the real reasons and it’s going to take more than asking the question one time [to get them to open up],” Motley said. “I’ve known that as a counselor, that what we see on the surface is not what’s really [going on].”
Brown, a former D.C. police officer, concurred.
“When you have a relationship with parents, you have a completely different environment and parents are more likely to give the real reason for truancy,” Brown said to nods of agreement from the crowd.
“It’s not one piece [for dealing with truancy] or the other, but if we don’t address it [starting at the elementary level] we’ll be back again and again discussing the same issue.”
Meanwhile, Henderson’s plan to close schools could lead to increased truancy.
Ward 7 activist Ron Moten denounced the chancellor’s plan to shutter 15 schools over the next two years, saying that action will certainly lead to truancy.
Moten said part of the solution lies in placing teachers in classrooms that students can relate to, and creating programs such as the student prayer breakfast at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast, that has attracted former truants back to the classroom.
“We did some out-of-the-box kinds of things,” Moten said of efforts at Ballou that date back to 2008, and helped to increase the graduation rate by 13 percent, he said.
“We taught our kids their history and what people went through so that they could have an education,” said Moten. “We kind of shamed them into taking education seriously.”