More than a year after the D.C. State Board of Education approved stricter attendance regulations aimed at getting more students into classroom seats, principal Stephen Jackson said monitoring truancy has become an all-consuming task at Dunbar High School.
“I would like for you to come visit and see the enormous amount of work being done,” he said, citing regular meetings with parents, home visits and court referrals. “But when they changed the rules, it became overwhelming.”
Jackson shared his experiences with board members at a roundtable discussion Monday night to see how the new anti-truancy policies are playing out.
New regulations were approved in response to a law the D.C. Council passed in July 2013, which aimed to combat pervasive absenteeism in city schools. The push reflects growing national attention to the issue, which experts link closely to academic performance.
Early data show the new D.C. law is having an impact. 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 during the most recent school year. The D.C. Public Charter School Board reported a drop from 19 percent in 2012-2013 to 15 percent last school year.
“It’s sending a message that it’s important to get to school to learn,” said Tim Harwood, a data and policy specialist with the charter board, who attended the meeting.
But during the past year, state board members said they have heard from schools that are struggling to implement the new rules and from parents who are frustrated by seemingly incessant robo-calls.
In one highly publicized case, a globe-trotting piano prodigy at Deal Middle transferred after her family received repeated notices of disciplinary action for absences they believed were excused.
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 with the family to improve attendance.
At 10 unexcused absences, the 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.
At the roundtable, youth advocates, attorneys, charter and traditional school leaders, and parents said the new regulations are flooding schools with paperwork and pushing tardy students into the criminal justice system.
Complaints in family court related to persons in need of supervision, which includes truancy cases, increased 92 percent between 2012 and 2013, to a total of 427 cases, according to an analysis by D.C. Lawyers for Youth. The number is expected to increase again in 2014 because the law will have been in effect all year.
Particularly challenging for some schools is a new regulation approved by the state board that says if a student misses 20 percent — rather than 40 percent — of the school day, he or she is counted as absent.
At high schools that have block schedules and longer class periods, that could mean missing one class. “So if a student misses one period a day, they’re truant,” Jackson said. “That’s insane to me.”
Jackson said free train passes might speed some students’ commute and help them get to school on time. The city provides free bus passes, but some teens have long rides to school. But what he would really like to see is a change to the law.
Board member Mary Lord (At Large) said she would like to work with the Office of the State Superintendent for Education to rewrite the “80-20” regulation.
“It’s the usual law of unintended consequence,” she said. “It sounds good in theory . . . [but] the solution seems to be increasing the problem.”