Thanks to reader Daniel L. who brought these reports on WAMU to my attention. The city council is proposing new regulations regarding student truancy, which is definitely a huge problem in DC. The reports cite a statistic that 20% of the students in public and public charter schools have already racked up 15 absences or more. In my school, the percent is definitely higher -- for my students, it is around 40%.
This problem was brought to my attention even more as I was giving an end-of-unit assessment yesterday. Of the 82 students on my rosters, only 40 came to take the test. I know some children take off early before the Holidays, but this is ridiculous. And I know I was not the only teacher with a test or other important project today (the 9th grade English teachers had a major paper due today).
Currently in my school, there is very little being done to address truancy. We (like all of DCPS) have a computerized calling system that places a phone call to parents any time their child misses a class, but many parents just ignore the computer system because it's not a real person. I personally can't call every time a student is absent, or I would be making 42 phone calls today alone. DC schools require full time attendance support staff that can be available to call the parents of absent children so that parents can be kept aware. Most schools already have one attendance assistant, but our truancy rates are so bad that this is usually too much for one person to handle and do a good job.
The proposals seem fine enough -- if a child misses a day of school they get a phone call, if the child misses more than 5 days an intervention team is assembled to work on the problem, and if these steps fail CPS and the courts get involved -- except for those schools that already have functional attendance systems. If schools have already found a way to address these problems, they should be left alone. Working schools should not be interfered with. But these proposals are great for schools that do not have working systems.
The problem with these proposals is that it requires a lot of time on the behalves of people who do not have a ton of time to give. The proposed intervention team includes a teacher and counselor -- when will I have time to meet with a team to discuss the 30+ students that are routinely absent? And what about the counselors, whose case-loads are even larger? Again, the proposals are great ideas, but we have to remember that there are real people who are going to do this work, and without extra staff there is no way they will be able to do it well. Of course, DCPS isn't about doing things well. It's just about compliance.
WAMU also reported that some charter school officials are very against these new proposals. It seems to me if children are not coming to school, it doesn't matter whether or not they go to a public or public charter school. Kids need to be in school -- end of story. Charter schools with high truancy rates need to take steps to reduce them. The only exception should, again, be for charter schools who already have a working attendance system that happens to be different from those proposed by the city council.
These sorts of top-down mandates are problematic because they assume that the things that work in affluent schools will also work in poor urban schools with the same level of financial commitment. This is simply not true. Urban youths from low-income communities can learn at the highest levels, but they often require extra support along the way. Attendance, like anything else, will only improve when we make education of poor minority students in DC an actual priority.
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