DC Public Schools is planning to combat its persistent truancy problem by strictly enforcing for the first time a law requiring principals to refer the parents of frequently absent students to child-protective services, Chancellor Kaya Henderson said Thursday.
"Jail is not for me -- I have to comply with the law," Henderson told members of the D.C. Council on Thursday. "I'm going to push my people to comply."
But Henderson, principals and even the lawmakers she was addressing acknowledged that reporting children who missed 10 days of school without excuse to the Child and Family Services Agency could ultimately sabotage their efforts to build relationships with these families, causing anti-truancy efforts to backfire.
About 11 percent of DCPS students are chronically truant, with six high schools accounting for 47 percent of all truancy cases. As of May 7, there were 441 truancy cases at Ballou Senior High School, and 410 at Anacostia Senior High School. Students are labeled "chronically truant" after 15 unexcused absences.
The problem starts much earlier than high school, but just 18 percent of the cases coming from elementary schools that should have been referred to the child-protective agency last year actually were, Henderson said. The call doesn't trigger an investigation to remove the child from his or her home -- rather, the agency is tasked with an "assessment" of why the student is missing class -- but the perception is powerful.
"The simple fact that they're from CFSA makes them say, 'Wait, I don't trust those school people anymore, they called CFSA on me,' " Henderson said.
Caroline John, the principal of Stanton Elementary School, admitted that she did not always follow the existing reporting law.
"The situation can be complex, and we don't always feel a one-size-fits-all model is appropriate," John said. "It could be a family that's moved to nine, 10 homes in a year. ... A CFSA referral of truancy is not going to solve that housing problem."
In addition to family services referrals, DC Public Schools is planning to increase staffing at at-risk schools, keep better track of excused absences and expand anti-truancy programs tested this past school years in the system's middle schools and for certain at-risk ninth-graders.
District officials did not have data on the success of these programs Thursday. Henderson said the ninth-grade initiative at Anacostia and Ballou "was not fully successful [but] our hope is that continued efforts will significantly reduce truancy rates."