Local: Education

Report: DCPS efforts to curb truancy hurt by understaffing

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Photo - D.C. students (Examiner file photo)
D.C. students (Examiner file photo)
Local,DC,Education,Lisa Gartner

D.C. Public Schools sabotaged its efforts to curb truancy by firing attendance counselors and choosing not to track when students were picked up by police, according to a report from the D.C. inspector general.

Inspector General Charles Willoughby's office also said lax policies created inconsistent responses to unexcused absences throughout the system, a problem DCPS says it began to correct last school year.

Focused chiefly on the 2009-10 school year, the audit's main suggestion is that the firing of hundreds of employees that year, including attendance counselors at McKinley Technology, H.D. Woodson and Anacostia high schools, understaffed DCPS's truancy initiatives.

"In fact, the attendance counselor at Cardozo [Senior High School] had to rely on employees working for the Department of Parks and Recreation ... to conduct home visits because she did not have enough time to conduct them during the day," Willoughby wrote.

"Instead of arbitrarily assigning one or two employees to handle day-to-day truancy matters at each school," DCPS should consider student enrollment and the school's truancy statistics when assigning staff, Willoughby urged.

Thirty-nine percent of high school students were "chronic truants," racking up at least 15 unexcused absences, in the 2009-10 school year. At three high schools, more than 60 percent of students were chronic truants.

Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said the system has hired social workers at schools with the highest rates of truancy.

In a formal response to the report, DCPS said it "partially agrees" with recommendations to boost attendance staffing. "However, some secondary schools are not able to implement the truancy policy with fidelity due to the high volume of students requiring intensive intervention and limited staff and time resources," wrote Amoretta Morris, director of student attendance.

School staff also disagreed with Willoughby's recommendation to track the number of truant students picked up by the police and brought to school midday. Officials said this summer that the data system does not allow for them to note this and that sometimes students who are truant are marked as at school.

DCPS said that "not all truant students are picked up by MPD, thus reliance on that number to make programmatic or policy determinations would base decisions on incomplete assessment."

Councilman David Catania, who after the South Capitol Street mass shooting co-authored legislation to enhance youth services and truancy regulations, said he supported the report's findings.

"It's an issue that we must continue to make a priority as the link between truancy and later delinquency is clear," he said. "The cost of not addressing it is tremendous."

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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