Hedy Chang is director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that promotes better practice and policy around school attendance. Attendance Works has conducted training in DC and Maryland. HyeSook Chung is executive director of DC Action for Children.
On the day The Post reported the hassles one D.C. family encountered when their 13-year-old piano prodigy was labeled truant, a mother stood up at a public forum at a Northeast Washington school to tell a different story.
When she got a call asking why her children were truant, she told of living in a house with no running water and no working stove. That call led her to a nonprofit organization that helped her find a suitable home and put her three children on track for better attendance.
Both stories demonstrate the importance of moving beyond using poor attendance to punish students and families and instead seeing it as a red flag for what’s going on in a child’s life.
Too often, the word truancy conjures the image of a teen defying authority. The desire is to punish that student or family, often with legal action. But that does little to address the causes of most attendance problems, and it’s costlier than a comprehensive effort that begins with positive support and prevention.
Recognizing this, the District’s public schools are joining school districts across the country in taking a fresh approach to attendance, looking at absences to determine who is missing too much school and how schools and community partners can get all students into the classroom.
D.C. Public Schools made progress by paying closer attention to all absences: Its in-seat attendance rate, the percentage of students who show up on a typical day, rose from 86.4 percent in the 2012-2013 school year to 88.5 percent in 2013-2014. Two percentage points may not sound like much, but spread across tens of thousands of students, it’s a remarkable increase.
Now, the district has begun training counselors and principals in strategies for tracking and intervening with students who are chronically absent, meaning they miss 10 percent of the school year for any reason, including excused, unexcused and disciplinary absences.
When principals first looked at their lists of chronically absent students, they saw kids they knew were in trouble, but they also saw patterns: students from one neighborhood or one housing complex or one classroom consistently missing school. This information can point to solutions rather than blame.
Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is leading this effort and has joined more than 100 superintendents nationally in a call to action to combat absenteeism sponsored by Attendance Works and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
The District’s Justice Grants Administration, in partnership with seven community organizations, is focusing on attendance with Show Up, Stand Out, an initiative that promotes the value of going to school every day and connects families of elementary and middle school students with the support they need to improve attendance.
That can mean helping a family find a better living situation or connecting a child who has asthma to needed health services. In its first year, 79 percent of students in the program improved attendance. Show Up, Stand Out is expanding to more schools and launching a public awareness campaign.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to truancy or use the court system. But truancy doesn’t tell the whole story. Beginning in kindergarten (or even preschool), chronic absence can predict that children won’t read proficiently by the end of third grade, especially if absenteeism persists for more than one year. By middle and high school, chronic absence is a warning sign that students might drop out of high school. And if too many students miss too much school, the classroom churn can slow learning for everyone.
This is a problem we can solve. First, schools need to know why students aren’t in school. Is it because families don’t recognize that absences are adding up? After all, missing 10 percent of the school year equals 18 days, and that can be as little as two absences a month.
Chronic absence is especially challenging for low-income students who face significant barriers to getting to school: unreliable transportation, lack of access to health care, unstable housing situations and community violence. Unfortunately, low-income students lose more ground than other kids when they’re absent because they have fewer resources to make up for lost opportunities in the classroom.
This is exactly why D.C. Public Schools should use chronic absence to identify students and families in need of support. Close attention to the data, combined with the services that community partners provide, can allow schools, communities and families to work together to ensure that more children are in school every day.
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