Two sentences were dropped from a story in yesterday's District Weekly about absenteeism in D.C. public schools. The first paragraph, which told of a 13-year-old student who stayed home watching television, should have concluded: "His parents think he is in school." The third paragraph should have read, "Edward is among more than 18,000 students who, for the past five years, failed to attend school on an average day."
Reclining in a darkened room in the middle of the day, Edward is watching soap operas on television while other school children are in class. He is usually home watching television. His parents thinks he's in school.
When the 13-year-old does go to school, he lingers through two lunch periods in the cafeteria. And when his teachers want to find him they head for the bathroom first. Edward will tell you he does not like school.
Although a school system attendance officer knows about Edward, and is working with him and his parents, Edward is still a chronic truant. He is among more than 18,000 students who on an average school day fail to attend D.C. public schools. Their non-attendance has produced over the past five years an absenteeism rate of more than 13 percent or double the national norm.
Last year the rate, which has been one of the highest in the country for the past five years, was 13.9 percent, having dropped from the year before when it rose to an all-time District school system high of 17.1 percent, or nearly triple the national average, according to a report released this week by the D.C. school system. In that 1977-1978 school year, Washington was topped by only one other major urban system -- the racially troubled Boston school system had a rate of 18.3 percent.
The local figures, which include both excused and unexcused absences, are far above other Washington area school system figures, which average about 6 percent. The Prince George's County school system, with a 9 percent absenteeism rate, was the only local jurisdiction with a rate remotely close to the district.
D.C. public school officials blame a lack of support from the courts, poor parental attitudes on attendance, student boredom with classes and limited staff to do proper follow-up with truants. They offer no immediate solution to the problem.
School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed said blame must be shared by parents and the school system."It has to do with parent apathy in schools and the fact that the school system has gotten away from demanding notes from kids out of school."
Reed said parents feel they have the right to keep their children out of school. "Now, parents keep their children out for the least little thing. They even keep their children out to babysit other children, which leaves two children at home. Many parents nowadays are not as school-conscious as they used to be."
Minnie Woodson, outgoing school board president, said she does not understand why the system has an attendance problem. ". . .but I do see children on the street during school hours frequently.I recently saw some children on a playground and asked them why they were not in class. They told me the teacher was mean and they didn't want to be bothered . . . These kids have a blase attitude about school."
Woodson, along with other public school officials, said students have an attitude that the school system must entertain them and "give them an education" without any effort on the students' part.
She said it is the parents' responsibility to teach children to come to school. "If it is not inherent in a parent to put the idea in the child that attendance in school is important, then it is almost impossible to have a solution to this promblem."
However, one parent who has had five children attend D.C. public schools, said several of her children cut classes, but she was never notified by the school system.
"My oldest son had been cutting class last year for four months and no one ever told me," Viola Morton said. The family lives in the Brightwood section of Northwest Washington.
The most serious attendance problem in the school system is in District high school, where the absenteeism rate has been above 20 percent for the past five years. Last year, the high school rate was 21.3 percent. In junior highs, where the rate has also been bad, it was 16.7 percent last year. Elementary schools have 9.3 percent absence rate.
Attendance officers are one way the school copes with the attendance problem. But the system only has 31 attendance officers and 18 aides to cover the city's 104,000 public school students.
Assigned several elementary, junior and senior high schools and so many as 80 cases a month, the officers only have time to keep track of the worst truancy cases, Woodson said.
Last year, according to Nona Johnson, the school system's chief attendance officer, 15,404 cases were referred to attendance officers, and they found 6,026 truant. Attendance officers, however, said these figures were incomplete because some schools do not refer all of their truants.
Television has played a key role in the school system's attendance problem, because children would rather stay home and watch TV, Johnson said.
Students between 7 and 16 are required by law to attend school. The school system has the option of taking parents to court if the children do not attend. Last year 32 cases were turned over to the D.C. Corporation Counsel's office for court action.
Most truants and their parents are either put on probation or enter into a consent decree (not admitting guilt, but promising not to do it again) for six months. Attendance officers say this practice does little to solve the problem because students who do not want to attend class simply lie to the judge.
Deputy Police Chief Roland Perry, in charge of the Youth Division, said there is a strong suspicion of a relationship between truancy and crime. "I think it is more of a gut reaction on the part of officers who see these kids on the streets without supervision. They believe there is more of a possibility these kids will commit a crime."
District police department figures show that last school year, during school hours, juveniles were arrested for a total of 1,354 crimes. Major crimes included 2 homicides, 4 rapes, 158 robberies, 249 burglaries and 350 larcenies.
A decade ago, the absenteeism rate in District public schools hovered around 9 percent, then started its upswing.
School board member Bettie Benjamin, who represents Ward 5 in Northeast, was succinct on the absenteeism problem: "We are having enough trouble trying to educate those students who want to learn. We are just going to have to do the best we can for those who don't."