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Truancy prevention absent in schools, Chavous charges

(Published December 21, 1998)

By LUTISHIA PHILLIPS

and REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writers

D.C. public school administrators have little to show for the $500,000 they spent last year to fight what may be the school systemís biggest problem ó kids who donít show up. Thatís the conclusion of D.C. City Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, chairman of the councilís education committee after hearing testimony on school truancy Dec. 10.

"I put that money in last yearís budget to put a truancy program in place," Chavous said. "I donít know where it went. I donít have a lot of confidence that they used the money the way it should have been used."

A recent report from D.C. Action for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group, also finds that "little has happened" in the area of truancy prevention since a similar hearing more than a year ago.

In fact, Chavous said, administrators reduced the number of "attendance centers" to deal with truants from four to one during the last year.

Meanwhile, documented cases of truancy increased 45 percent between academic year 1995-96 and 1996-97, according to Action for Children. More than 1,000 students were picked up by police officers for truancy during the last school year, the report said.

"Until the Districtís public school system can fix the current system and establish a clear and consistently implemented process to identify them and work with students at risk of truancy and engaged in truancy, students will continue to suffer from poor education and experience failure," the Action for Children report said.

"Right now, 50 percent of students that enter school donít graduate," Chavous said in an interview after the hearing. "At the same time we have high unemployment and escalating juvenile crime. It all inter-relates. Itís major problem that hasnít gotten a lot of attention."

But judging from attendance at the hearing, Chavousí colleagues on city council donít share his concern. None of them showed up at the hearing.

Chavous also faulted current truancy prevention efforts for focusing too closely on high school students at the expense of elementary school aged children.

Currently, police officers who find children out of school during school hours take them to a central "attendance center" where they are evaluated by counselors.

"Those centers promote a focus on the older children," Chavous said. "Those patterns have already been set. We need a renewed focus on younger children."

Deputy DCPS Superintendent Elois Brooks said the schools are working with various agencies on the issue. The most obvious change on the horizon is a plan for secondary school teachers to take attendance in every class every day beginning in January. Currently attendance is taken only once a day.

The new attendance procedure is part of a multi-agency truancy prevention program set to begin in January that includes a media campaign of public service announcements, letters reminding parents that they can be charged with a misdemeanor if their children are found to be truant, and letters reminding businesses to report children seen loitering during school hours. The program is a joint effort by D.C. Public Schools, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Districtís social service agencies.

School officials said truant students can be reported to the school system by calling (202) 576-6985.

Brooks also testified that the school district has encountered problems notifying parents within 24 hours, as required, when their children are absent from school. She blamed the problems on the lack of touch-tone telephones at many schools, which she said prevents the use of an automated system to call parents.

Copyright 1998, The Common Denominator