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D.C. Council frustrated with city’s progress on truancy

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The District must be more urgent and creative about tackling its rampant truancy problem, D.C. Council members said Thursday, pointing out that its efforts thus far have reached only a fraction of chronically absent students.

Thousands of students miss a a month or more of class each year. But a program meant to address truancy among middle-schoolers, which is overseen by the Child and Family Services Agency, is currently serving only seven students. The high school program is serving 53 students.

Meanwhile, truancy rates are not on track to drop significantly this school year, Chancellor Kaya Henderson said, testifying before the committee of the whole and the education committee.

“I kind of want to scream,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who along with the education committee chairman, David Catania (I-At Large), has led the council’s push to draw attention to the city’s widespread truancy. “We just can’t do next year what we’ve done this year, which is basically tread water.”

Catania also expressed impatience with the pace of change. “I didn’t expect to be this frustrated,” he said.

Both council members accused the school system and other city agencies of bureaucratic sluggishness, pointing to one program — an effort to help students pay for transportation to school — as an example of the problem.

City officials began discussing subsidizing transportation more than six months ago. The subsidies were supposed to be distributed in November. Students have begun receiving them only in recent days.

Henderson’s staff said the delay stemmed from trying to work out the details of payment and a memorandum of understanding with the deputy mayor for education. Catania was not pleased.

“We’re not negotiating a bilateral agreement with China,” he said. “It’s you talking to your peer in the deputy mayor’s office, figuring out how to put money from one pot into another pot.”

Henderson, one of four government witnesses to testify Thursday, bore the brunt of the lawmakers’ dissatisfaction. Mendelson acknowledged that while the school system is not solely responsible for tackling absenteeism, the chancellor, as part of a citywide truancy task force, must do more to push other city agencies to attack the problem.

“There has to be some of the creativity in the discussion and urgency in the discussion,” Mendelson said.

Henderson said she too is frustrated. “I feel the fire,” she said, adding that she’s hired additional social workers in high schools with the most truancy and has made attendance a priority at schools across the city.

At the urging of the council, the school system is now referring many more truant students to the city’s child welfare agency, as is required by law, than it was before. Last year, schools referred 21 percent of truants ages 5 to 13 to the Child and Family Services Agency; now that number is up to 93 percent.

Referral to CFSA triggers an assessment of the child’s family situation and help identifying and addressing the root cause of truancy, from unstable housing to mental health issues or bullying. Only if there are signs of neglect or abuse does the agency launch a full-blown child-welfare investigation.

At the same time that the school system is referring more children to CFSA, truancy appears to be dropping significantly at some elementary schools. But it’s not clear that the referrals are the reason for the change: At the high school level, absenteeism has actually risen at the schools with the highest referral rates.

Referrals are a “very useful tool as we work to combat truancy, but referrals are not the solution,” Henderson said. “Evidence does not indicate that this is helping to reduce truancy at this point.”

Catania took umbrage at that conclusion, saying it’s too soon to know what effect referrals are having. He has introduced legislation that calls for referring teens ages 14 to 17 to CFSA after 10 unexcused absences. Currently, those older children must miss 25 days of school before they are referred to court social services — and by that time it’s too late to make a difference, Catania argues.

Henderson said dealing with truancy means her staff need to engage parents before truancy becomes a problem, and her schools need to offer the kind of exciting programs that make students want to come to school.

She also said that she’s working on an agreement to ensure that students’ paychecks through the Summer Youth Employment Program vary according to school-year attendance. Those with many absences should expect to earn less this summer than their peers with good attendance, she said.

The chancellor said she will have more alternative programs in place by next fall to serve struggling students who might otherwise skip school or drop out altogether.

Henderson had spoken at a November council hearing about a major literacy initiative planned for January. Many children skip school because they can’t read or are otherwise frustrated by academics, she said at the time.

The school system has not yet launched the new literacy effort, she said.

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