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District Grapples with High Truancy Rates

Dorothy Rowley | 11/12/2012, 5:03 p.m.

Less than a year after the District of Columbia launched a $500,000 anti-truancy program aimed specifically at improving graduation rates through radio commercials and mass transit advertising, a recently-released report reveals that truancy remains a big problem.

The report, titled "Truancy Reduction in D.C. Public School System Year 2012-13," which was the topic of discussion during a Nov. 8 D.C. Council hearing on anti-truancy, also stated that at some District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) high schools most of the students were chronically truant, with 15 or more unexcused absences during the 2009-10 school year, and that such absences from classes often result in lower graduations.

The District has the distinction of having one of the nation's worst dropout rates, and during the hearing which involved Chancellor Kaya Henderson and an official from the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), Henderson -- who referred to DCPS's four-year graduation rate -- described the system's high rates of truancy as "an educational "crisis."

In acknowledging that more than 40 percent of students at Ballou, Anacostia, Spingarn and Roosevelt high schools missed a month of classes last year over unexcused absences, Henderson, 42, added that many older students who are years behind on their age-appropriate reading level, have given up.

Students fall into a high rate of truancy after missing more than 21 day from schools. Ballou students head the list with 46 percent truancy and a 50 percent graduation rate. Anacostia, Spingarn, Roosevelt, Dunbar, Cardozo and H.D. Woodson follow, with some of the schools targeted for closing in accordance with recommendations earlier this year from the Chicago-based Illinois Facility Fund.

A 2011 Washington Informer article stated that on any given day in almost every District neighborhood, youth who should be in school are seen loitering and getting into mischief, and that city police picked up more than 4,000 students that year for truancy.

Truancy usually begins at the middle school level and as many as 2,000 students in the District skip school each day. An August 2012 report to DCPS from the Office of the Inspector General indicated that among reasons students give for truancy are lack of clothing to wear, pregnancy, fear of gang violence and problems at home.

In addition to DCPS truants being picked up by District police, some are referred to CFSA for educational neglect.

Michele Rosenberg, CFSA chief of staff, said the District mandates that her agency be informed whenever a student age five through 13 has 10 unexcused absences within a school year. She added however, that that when younger children are chronically truant, their educational progress and ability to contribute positively to society is put in jeopardy.

"What's more, it may signal that family difficulties are getting in the way of getting children to school regularly and on time," Rosenberg said. "The family may be struggling, and this may be an opportunity to help."

According to DCPS, these are key terms aligned with unexcused absences:

* Truant - A 5 - 17 year old student who is not in the school on a school day without a valid excuse;

* Chronically Truant - Describing a student between the ages of 5 and 17 who has accumulated 15 or more unexcused absences for the school year in a school in which he/she has been enrolled for at least 25 days;

* Truancy rate - The value reported by DCPS reflecting the percentage of students in a school who are chronically truant;

* Average Daily Attendance (ADA) - This is the daily attendance rate. It reflects the average number of students who are present or have excused absences for a period of time. Excused absences are defined by DCMR Ch. 21; and

* Chronically Absent - Describes a student of any age who has missed 10 percent or more days in a school year, excused or unexcused.

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