Tackling one of the most pervasive problems in urban education, District police have sharply stepped up their enforcement of truancy laws. In the five weeks since classes started Sept. 1, police have picked up 1,168 children who were out of school, compared with 1,460 for all of last year.
The impetus for reducing truancy comes from the Board of Education, which set up a task force to examine the issue, and from officials including Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and Presiding Judge Lee F. Satterfield of the Family Court division of D.C. Superior Court. The new schools superintendent, Clifford B. Janey, also has announced that student attendance would be a top priority of his administration.
Addressing truancy's root causes, rather than merely punishing students, is essential, officials said. "Attendance, or absence of such, is usually a symptom of something larger, usually beyond the reach of a school to address sufficiently," Janey said Tuesday during a meeting with reporters and editors of The Washington Post.
Diane E. Powell, the school system's director of student intervention services, said that there is more collaboration among various city agencies than ever. "For the past five years, we have been aggressively trying to address issues related to truancy," said Powell, who has worked for the school system since 1979. "What is new is that we have gotten all of the partners to commit at the highest levels of government to addressing this problem."
A centerpiece of the effort is a 24-step attendance plan that has been distributed to principals of the city's roughly 150 public schools, reminding them of the city's attendance policies.
Elementary students with 10 days of unexcused absences now must be reported to the city's Child and Family Services Agency for a neglect investigation. All students with a pattern of 15 or more such absences are to be referred to the student intervention services branch, which Powell heads, for possible referral to the city's "truancy court."
Despite its name, "the truancy court" is simply a new way of organizing cases so that a single Family Court judge, Robert E. Morin, is focusing on truancy cases. Under the city's 1990 compulsory school attendance law, parents who fail to ensure that their children attend school regularly can be fined up to $100, jailed or sentenced to community service. Those parents also can be charged with child neglect after child welfare case-workers investigate.
The court is designed to handle the most serious truancy cases. Children may be assigned juvenile probation officers, who work for the court and monitor attendance, or may appear before a "youth court" of their own peers -- often other children who have had truancy problems in the past -- who recommend ways to improve attendance. The "youth court" is run by Time Dollar USA, founded by Edgar S. Cahn, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia.
Other elements of the attendance plan include regular reports submitted to the school system's central office, an annual attendance orientation for parents at the start of the school year, and commendations for students with no days absent or tardy. Since 1999, schools have been supplied with the PhoneMaster communication system. The automated system makes wake-up calls to homes and reports late arrivals and unexcused absences.
When police find unsupervised students between 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on school days, they take them to the Penn Attendance Center, at 1709 Third St. NE, or the Douglass Attendance Center, at 2600 Douglass Rd. SE. Each center has a coordinator, an attendance counselor and a clinical social worker. "We do direct, immediate counseling with the children," Powell said. "We're able to look at their entire attendance history. We're able to determine why they're out of school, do follow-up, and figure out what they need."
School officials, who said they cannot specify how many of the system's 64,000 students are truants, said chronic absence is often correlated with child neglect.
School officials are trying to improve coordination with Child and Family Services, although historically, such coordination has been difficult because of laws protecting the confidentiality of educational records.
Those barriers are beginning to break down. This summer, in a trial project that educators hope to expand, the school system provided Child and Family Services with the names of 200 children with poor attendance at Wilkinson Elementary School, located in an impoverished section of Southeast Washington, to determine whether the children's families needed, or were already receiving, social services.
The school was chosen because it has only young students, from pre-kindergarten to the third grade, giving educators a chance to intervene early in the children's lives. A contractor hired by the city's Department of Mental Health also is providing services to Wilkinson's truants.
Undiagnosed psychological conditions -- such as depression, anxiety disorders and school phobias -- often play a role in truancy, school officials said. The schools are making more referrals to counseling and psychiatric services and have instructors who make home visits to students unable to attend school for medical reasons.
An expert in truancy and absenteeism praised the decision to pick up many more students for truancy.
"It is the right thing to do, because you need to send a message to the students, the parent and the community that school attendance is important," said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, a research institution at Clemson University.
He said that absenteeism is a strong predictor for dropping out. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which punishes schools and districts if they do not improve student performance, also has pressured school districts to focus on attendance. "If you want to learn math, science or reading, you need to be in class," Smink said.
Because student funding formulas and federal aid are based largely on attendance, school leaders across the country have recognized that attendance also can bring in revenue. Smink said that higher expectations of personal responsibility also have been placed on students nationwide in the past 10 to 15 years.