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Technology takes on truants in city schools

(Published January 24, 2000)

By SAM STRIKE

Staff Writer

Parents and teachers have been scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to keep students in school, while administrators have been toying with truancy intervention programs to reduce what has long been acknowledged to be a serious problem in the Districtís public schools.

In an effort to increase the student attendance rate from 92 percent in the 1998-99 school year, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is implementing system-wide efforts to track truants and notify parents when their children fail to attend classes.

City Councilman Kevin P. Chavous will ask school officials to update the councilís education committee, which he chairs, about anti-truancy efforts during a public oversight hearing on Jan. 25. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. in the council chamber at One Judiciary Square, 441 Fourth St. NW.

Carl Johnson said there were days when he plugged 300 calls to parents of absent students into the automatic dialing system when he worked as attendance counselor at Anacostia Senior High School. Currently Johnson serves in the same capacity at Moten Elementary School in Southeast Washington, where his job has gotten a little easier, he said.

Since the key to a low truancy rate is contact between parents and administrators, according to Johnson, contacting parents within 24 hours of a studentís absence seems ideal. But in the schools that have yet to implement PhoneMaster, the autodialing system, "counselors have such arduous jobs," he said, "being held accountable for so many kids."

The phone system leaves a recorded message on parentsí answering machines, and if there is no machine, routes the number to the end of the list to be redialed. Johnson said that he sometimes makes follow-up phone calls himself and that parents "are surprised that someoneís calling them. They seem happy to get that information."

Diane Powell, director of the student intervention services branch for D.C. Public Schools, said the introduction of high-technology methods to combat truancy "is something Mrs. Ackerman is strongly supporting."

But the automatic phone system apparently isnít functioning at all the cityís public schools yet. According to a quick survey of schools, The Common Denominator found the system is not in working order yet at Spingarn Senior High School in Northeast Washington, so teachers and staff make the phone calls to parents themselves. Attendance staff at Banneker Senior High School in Northwest Washington acknowledged that their autodialing system is working, while those at Bell Multicultural High School said that theirs will be "in full force" as soon as possible.

In another effort to fight truancy, the superintendent began requiring during the current school year that all schools take attendance during each class period. Schools also are required to establish attendance intervention committees and appoint attendance counselors.

D.C. police also pick up students for truancy. Student who are picked up repeatedly may be sent to a court diversion program funded by court social services. There, the student has individual counseling and may be given family therapy because truancy can be endemic of other problems that may be family-related or involving housing or employment difficulties, Powell said.

The reasons students skip school range from "situational and developmental issues" to seniors taking advantage of a beautiful day, Powell said. Students sometimes also avoid coming to school because they are threatened by someone either in school or on the way there, Johnson said.

No matter what the reason for cutting school, the object of attendance intervention is to have them develop a sense of personal responsibility, Powell said.

"Children donít become truant all of a sudden in secondary school. Itís a pattern," she said.

Teachers and staff who see a pattern of absenteeism or tardiness set up a conference with the studentís parents to go over attendance guidelines, offer a plan of assistance or refer them to resources in and out of school that include after-school and weekend programs, Johnson said.

For students who exhibit "risky behavior," Powell said, the attendance committee meets to review the studentís record based on his or her elementary attendance rate or period-by-period attendance, and develops an intervention plan that uses various non-school systems.

The average daily attendance for the 1998-99 school year in D.C. public elementary schools was 93.8 percent. In middle schools, it was 91.1 percent; junior high schools, 90.3 percent; and senior high schools, 86.8 percent. Special education students had a 90.2 percent attendance rate, according to school officials.

"I think we have a pretty good program (at Moten)," said Johnson. And although he said he is satisfied with the high attendance rate of the schoolís fourth through sixth graders, he notes that his wife works at a public school in Fairfax County where six people do the job that one person does in D.C. schools.

"In D.C. Public Schools you have one counselor and maybe one aide," he said of the workload.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator