Truancy High for Younger Students

Extenuating Circumstances Exacerbate Problem

Dorothy Rowley | 7/9/2014, 3 p.m.
More elementary-age students than ever have racked up excessive numbers of unexcused days from school, according to a January report ...
David Catania (I-At Large) chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education. (Courtesy photo)

One year following a heated meeting at Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast where city leaders, parents and community activists struggled to come to terms with the schools’ rapidly increasing student absenteeism, and subsequent truancy rates, little has been done to rein in the numbers.

The problem has gotten worse, with more elementary-age students than ever having racked up excessive numbers of unexcused days from school, according to a January report from the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system.

In 2013, for example, 269 pre-kindergarten students had more than 20 days of unexcused absences. During the same year, of the 3,408 pre-kindergarten students enrolled, at District public schools, 1,518 had 1 to 5 days of unexcused absences.

“But you have to be careful with the numbers, because they’re not always what they seem,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund in Northwest. “There are a lot of low-income households, especially in Wards 5, 7 and 8, where conditions like asthma and a host of other childhood illnesses come into play,” said Filardo, 60.

“Four year olds might wake up not feeling well, so the parent is not going to send them to school. Same thing for a three year old who’s not feeling that good,” said Filardo, who added that while many elementary school-age absences center on illnesses, housing issues often dictate school attendance.

“There are a lot of underprivileged families in the school system who have been evicted and, as a result are homeless,” said Filardo. “So they end up living from house-to-house with relatives or in long-term stays at homeless shelters.”

Take for example, Relisha Rudd, the 8-year-old girl who has been missing since March 1. For two years, her family lived at the D.C. General Family Shelter in Southeast, before a school counselor alerted authorities that the little girl hadn’t been to school in weeks.

Relisha’s chronic absenteeism has since sparked debate about the high rates of absenteeism, with or without parental consent.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray has asked Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith to review city programs connected to Relisha's case and to recommend improvements.

Another case that involved students that had not attended school in weeks, revolved around Banita Jacks, convicted of murdering her four daughters in 2009.

That case, which also led to accusations against the public schools system, resulted in the firings of several social workers for failing to follow-up on complaints that might have saved the children.

Meanwhile, chronic absenteeism leads to truancy, which leads to poor classroom performance and low graduation rates.

Last year, 32 percent of students missed 10 or more days, and 19 percent missed 20 or more days. Overall, absenteeism with or without parental consent reportedly led to 40 percent of students having missed at least 18 days in 2012-13, compared to 20 percent who missed 35 days during the same school year.

Although the school system is required to report any student who has missed 10 days without an excuse – only 40 percent of cases received attention last year.