Despite intensified efforts to improve attendance rates in D.C. public schools, more than half of high school students — 56 percent —were considered “chronically truant” during the 2013-2014 school year, after accumulating more than 10 unexcused absences, according to a report scheduled to be released Monday by the Children’s Law Center and D.C. Lawyers for Youth.
The report found that schools are overwhelmed by new legal requirements designed to crack down on truancy and struggling to provide required services to students before they are referred to courts.
“Students miss school for many reasons, and a thoughtful approach is necessary to address the underlying causes of poor attendance,” the report said. “Unfortunately, the District’s current efforts to increase school attendance are not guided by evidence and ultimately fail students.”
Overall, attendance is improving. Last year, 8 percent of D.C. public school students were chronically truant in elementary schools and 10 percent were chronically truant in middle schools.
Truancy was much more common in high school, but rates are down from the previous year. In 2012-2013, 73 percent of high school students in D.C. public schools had missed 11 or more days, according to data provided in oversight documents for the D.C. Council’s Education Committee. Last year, the number was 56 percent.
Officials say last year’s truancy numbers may be misleading because of a new regulation that requires students who miss 20 percent of the school day to be marked absent for the day. Previously, students had to miss at least 40 percent of the day to be marked absent.
The report, along with many high school administrators and students, recommends revising that law, saying that it confuses chronic tardiness with absenteeism and leads to inappropriate interventions and administrative burdens.
It includes provisions for multiple interventions based on how many absences a child accumulates.
At five unexcused absences, a school support team, including administrators, teachers and social workers, meets to develop a plan with the family to improve attendance.
At 10 unexcused absences, a family must be referred to the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. At 15 unexcused absences, students aged 14 to 17 can be referred to court.
Many schools are struggling to provide in-school support before students can be referred to outside agencies, the report said.
D.C. public school officials reported that in the first half of the current school year, more than 4,000 students were referred to support-team meetings because of attendance concerns. But the compliance rate was only 38 percent.
Meanwhile, court referrals have increased dramatically. After one semester of the new law taking effect, there was a 92 percent increase in the number of new complaints in Family Court in the category that includes truancy cases, the report said. Before the law passed, the trigger for a court referral was 25 unexcused absences.
“The court simply was not created to address the root causes of poor school attendance, and also lacks the capacity to process the thousands of youth who accumulate 15 absences each year,” it said.
The report recommends improving school-based interventions and programs that have proved successful in improving attendance.