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Barras: Parents and D.C. public schools

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras,D.C. Council

D.C. Councilman David Catania is right: More parents should be pushed to get their children to school. It's hard to dispute the fact that a child who is not in the classroom can't receive any academic benefits. Still, his recently introduced legislative proposal, which would impose a series of sanctions -- from written warnings to jail time or a $100 fine -- on parents whose children have 10 or more unexcused absences, is no panacea for poor test scores and low graduation rates. In fact, his approach appears to ignore the reality of life in some low-income communities where truancy is highest.

Often students from those areas live in single-parent homes, where burdens are enormous. I grew up in such a household.

From junior high through high school, I was a latch-key kid. My mother refused to accept a government check and simultaneously held multiple jobs. Sometimes she left for work before my brother and I even woke up. We were given strict instructions about what to eat, what to wear and how to spend our lunch money. On many days, my brother didn't make it to school -- if he did, he didn't stay. Sadly, he led a troubled life and died young.

The District is filled with mothers similarly trying to ensure their children have better lives, including not repeating the poor choices of their parents. Sometimes their best efforts aren't good enough.

Instead of jail time, shouldn't the District push more aggressively for creation and preservation of two-parent homes? Should DCPS provide more tangible assistance to families of truant children? Equally important, what is the government's responsibility to offering exciting and inspiring educational environments?

Unquestionably truancy is a problem in the District, but it's only one reason for low student performance in many of the city's traditional public schools. After all, a child who is not at school doesn't take a standardized test.

Thousands of students checked present everyday still aren't proficient in reading and mathematics. Don't even consider achievement levels in science.

Part of the problem in DCPS was laid bare earlier this week as Chancellor Kaya Henderson presented to the legislature -- for the second time -- her plan to close 15 schools over the next two years. Not unlike the first time, she could not tell council members -- and residents who sat through a three-hour committee briefing -- what new or improved academic programs would be offered at schools that would receive students from those shuttered facilities.

Generally speaking, Henderson said arts, music and physical education instruction would be provided to every student. She said there would be world language programs in elementary schools. She also said there would be 21st century libraries.

That all sounds good -- just as it did in 2008. Then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee made similar promises when 23 facilities were shuttered; Henderson was her deputy. The council failed to keep track sufficiently of the details of those closings and particulars of education reform.

"We have been missing in action for six years," said Catania.

Time will tell whether anything has changed -- including whether Henderson delivers on her promises.

Jonetta Rose Barras's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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