FOR FAR TOO long, truancy was seen as a problem for schools to solve. But the causes of truancy, like its impacts, are felt far beyond the classroom. That’s why it was a welcome development when D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) reactivated a task force that brings together different agencies and disciplines to develop strategies to keep children off the streets and in school.
The task force, which brought together education, human services and criminal justice agencies, unfortunately fell by the wayside during the previous administration, even though it had generally been credited with helping to reduce truancy. Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) apparently preferred that attention and resources go to other parts of his aggressive school reform.
But truancy undercuts reform; habitual truancy often leads to students dropping out of school. Recent years have seen some improvement in school attendance, but some 20 percent of secondary students in 2010-11 missed 15 or more school days. That 36 percent of D.C. adults are functionally illiterate is due in part to the city’s failure to come to grips with truancy issues. Those numbers translate into youths who get caught up in the criminal justice system and adults who are ill-prepared to enter the workforce.
Chaired by De’Shawn Wright, the deputy mayor for education, and Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush, who presides over Family Court, the Citywide Truancy Taskforce is helping to pilot programs that aim to deal with the root causes of truancy that afflict many low-income, single-parent households, such as inadequate housing, family members with unresolved health issues and the need to care for younger siblings. Particularly promising is an intensive, non-punitive program that partners judges with social workers to provide family-centered supports that remove the obstacles that keep children out of school.
Resources are an issue. The D.C. Council is poised to expand school-based mental health programs, but it’s unclear whether there will be full funding. Already many traditional and charter schools are without attendance officers, and the cost of scaling up the promising family-centered pilots is likely to be steep. Some who serve on the task force worry whether the city is making the best use of its limited money, questioning, for example, a pricey media campaign that exhorted students to stay in school. “You know how many social workers I could have hired for that $700,000?” one advocate asked us derisively.
As Mr. Gray puts the finishing touches on his budget for next year, we would urge him to direct resources to identifying and helping the children most at risk.