A single mother who is sick or dealing with car repairs. A child who’s staying with neighbors because his parent is in jail. A mother who works nights and weekends and takes her child out of school during the week to go shopping and spend time with her.
These are the kinds of scenarios that lead children in the District to miss school with alarming frequency, city officials say. Case workers during the past two years have begun working with D.C. families to figure out what is causing their attendance problems and how they can help.
The program, Show Up, Stand Out, is having some success, according to an evaluation of the first year’s results released Tuesday during an event at Browne Education Campus.
Nearly 80 percent of the families involved in the program during the 2012-2013 school year improved their childrens’ attendance.
“Parents love their children and want what’s best for them, but it’s hard for some parents to get their children to school consistently,” said Melissa Hook, the director of the Justice Grants Administration, which has spent $3.5 million in local funds on the truancy prevention program. The program pairs case workers from community organizations with public schools.
The D.C. anti-truancy initiative grew from a pilot program with
17 schools in 2012-2013 to 45 schools during the last school year. This year, seven community organizations are partnering with 60 elementary and middle schools — including eight charter schools — and the city plans to promote school attendance with the new slogan on city buses and billboards.
Chronic absenteeism is a growing concern nationally, and research shows that missing too much school leads to higher failure and drop-out rates.
D.C. officials have seen improvements in attendance as schools have ramped up anti-truancy efforts in recent years.
The portion of D.C. public school students ages 5 through 17 who had 10 or more unexcused absences dropped from 27 percent in 2012-2013 to 18 percent last school year. The D.C. Public Charter School Board reported a similar drop — from 19 percent in 2012-2013 to 15 percent last year.
That still leaves more than 13,000 students who are chronically truant, not including thousands more who rack up excused absences.
“Our job is to educate young people, but we cannot educate them if they are not sitting in their seats,” D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said at the event Tuesday.
Henderson said help from community partners is “critical” to efforts the school system is making to improve attendance.
According to D.C. law, if a child has reached five unexcused absences, a school support team, including administrators, teachers and social workers, meets to develop a plan to help the child’s family improve attendance. About 9,000 such meetings took place last year, up from 1,000 the year before, Henderson said.
It is then that partner organizations get involved. Case managers work with families to see what support they need. Help could come in the form of a SmartTrip card, a carpool with another family, a referral for housing or employment, or a conversation about why attendance is important to their child’s success.
Nearly all — 98 percent — of the parents or guardians involved in the program were single parents, most of them women with two or three children, according to the evaluation released Tuesday.
Kimberly Lightner was one of them. She was living in transitional housing last year and struggling with depression when her daughter began to arrive late and miss whole days of school at Daniel A. Payne Elementary in Southeast. The school social worker connected Lightner with a case manager at Catholic Charities, who helped her find an apartment and develop a manageable morning routine.
This year she is finishing her degree at the University of the District of Columbia and her daughter is doing well in school.
“I am so grateful,” Lightner said through tears.
Another Payne Elementary student last year, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, disappeared in March with a janitor at her homeless shelter after 30 absences from school — more than 10 of them unexcused.
School officials said they had been in touch with Rudd’s family, though they did not contact the child welfare agency. A school social worker alerted police after she went to the shelter to investigate why Rudd had not been coming to school. The case refocused attention on truancy, a persistent problem for the city’s schools.
Phil Mendelson (D), chairman of the D.C. Council, said that the city is shifting its approach to addressing truancy.
“In the past, we’ve treated it as something wrong, to be punished,” he said, noting that it instead should be something that “tells us that something is going on.”