On a warm summer day when they would have been forgiven for wanting to be just about anywhere else, a dozen or so D.C. public high school students gathered at the Anacostia Neighborhood Library to help teach grown-ups a thing or two about why kids skip school and what can be done about it. After all, the thinking went, grown-ups have had lots of ideas, and not many have worked. Let’s hear what the kids suggest.
And so on Tuesday, after being greeted by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, the students from six public and public charter schools met with school administrators, counselors and truant officers for the second annual “Every Day Counts! Attendance Design Challenge,” a day-long workshop arranged by school leaders to solicit and develop ideas from students to tackle chronic absenteeism in the city’s schools.
The problem is daunting. In the 2015-2016 school year, about 21 percent of public students in Washington were chronically truant, meaning they missed 10 school days for unexcused reasons, and 26 percent were chronically absent, meaning they missed more than 10 percent of the school year for either unexcused or excused reasons. The rates were higher in high schools and in the city’s poorer wards.
Traditional methods haven’t worked to change the tide, said Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer C. Niles. “Doing what we normally do hasn’t gotten us there,” Niles said. “So we want to ask the kids what they need from us and what do we need to change so that they want to go to school.”
That doesn’t mean school needs to be “candy and gum drops,” Niles said, but it does mean a recognition that there are barriers that keep students from feeling that school is somewhere they want to be and where their time is best spent.
Absenteeism is something “we want the whole city to think about,” she said. “When you miss school, you miss what you need to know to learn the next thing. And so we need to overcome all the reasons that you’re not in school.”
Allisen Borneo, 16, is heading into her junior year at Washington Metropolitan High School in Northwest Washington where she is an honor roll student. She knows lots of reasons her schoolmates regularly stay home.
“They have to take care of sick family members or they feel unsafe or they feel they’re not smart enough,” Allisen said. “And some kids miss a lot of school because they just choose to. School doesn’t interest them.”
Allisen encourages her classmates to go to school, but that doesn’t always work. She hopes that she and her fellow students will be able to think of ways, big and small, to keep students from skipping, including making classes more participatory and engaging, helping students feel safe at school and addressing issues of inadequacy and poverty that some of them face.
Latonya Elliot, a D.C. police truancy officer who attended the workshop, playfully describes herself as a “truant whisperer” and says she can almost always persuade a student to return to school. But she regularly sees young people who don’t want to go to school because their sneakers are old or their uniforms are showing wear and tear and they know they’ll be teased.
“Poverty plays on their insecurities,” she said. “It’s harder for them than people realize.”
The workshop was led by Caroline Hill and Michelle Molitor, who approach absenteeism as a result of long-standing inequity and entrenched poverty. Having young people play an active role in the process, they say, helps them become more invested in the results and in implementing the changes. The goal was for students to leave the session with a prototype for addressing the needs of chronically absent students. Those ideas could then be tried out at schools, and schools could share approaches that are successful.
“When students are part of the solution, school becomes a place they want to be,” Hill said.