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Jason Crocker was the first to testify at Monday afternoon’s joint roundtable on truancy reform initiatives.
“Mr. Grosso, you’ve said before that these meetings can be boring. So I won’t be boring,” Crocker said before launching into a two-minute impersonation of President Obama.
He called that alter ego “Bacrock Obama,” and the embarrassment—which stunned viewers in the packed hearing room into total silence—was an apt symbol for the three-hour-long meeting.
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who chairs the Council’s education committee, was frustrated with the lack of up-to-date analysis of existing truancy reform initiatives.
“How do we look at this and evaluate how all of these different programs are working, and how do we refine it if it’s not? Who do we give the money to and why?” Grosso asked. “I’m more and more convinced we can’t legislate our way to better attendance.”
During the 2013-2014 school year, 18 percent of DCPS students and 15 percent of charter students were “chronically truant,” according to a report by D.C. Lawyers for Youth, meaning they missed more than 10 days of school without an excuse. Fifty-six percent of DCPS high school students in the District were considered chronically truant during that period.
Despite reform initiatives instituted after the passage of a 2013 anti-truancy law, some District officials aren’t seeing the desired results.
After reaching 10 unexcused absences, the school must refer students to the Child and Family Services Agency, which then holds a disciplinary meeting with the student and his or her guardian. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says that system only turns students off to the idea of going to school: 46 percent of students who were referred to CFSA last year either did not re-enroll in school or were truant again, and 78 percent of students referred to the court for truancy did not re-enroll or were truant again. She says the “lion’s share” of those numbers probably reflect students who continue to be truant rather than those who don’t re-enroll (either because they decided to switch schools or drop out completely).
Thousands of high school students who missed more than 15 days of school last year were referred to court. But Daniel Okonkwo, executive director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, told the councilmembers the court system is “fundamentally unequipped” to handle those numbers.
Also criticized was the contentious “80/20 rule,” which gives students who are more than 10 minutes late to their first class an unexcused absence for that period. Students who miss more than 20 percent of the school day are given an unexcused absence for the whole day. Okonkwo said it’s unfair to conflate chronic tardiness with chronic absenteeism.
“I feel like you’re identifying problems but criticizing us for not having solved those problems,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said to Okonkwo. “Which is what we’re trying to do, and at some schools the problem is overwhelming… The goal is not court prosecutions, but you have to have court at the end of the process as a stick while we try to improve the carrot.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery