Implementation of New Regulations Have Caused Truancy Rates to Rise

By: Karyna Valdes

Last year, the District of Columbia (D.C.) began enforcing new regulations in an attempt to reduce its severe truancy problem. On June 28, 2013 truancy laws were amended and the new D.C. Municipal regulations became effective in August. With the new regulations came promises of many changes and positive results.

The new regulations changed how “chronic truancy” is defined. D.C. schools previously defined “chronic truancy” as having 25 or more unexcused absences in a single school year. The amended regulations now reduce the number of absences for “chronic truancy” to 10. Additionally, every school must now consider a student “absent” when they are not physically in attendance for “a full or partial school day … of actual instruction at the educational institution.” Students who attend school for a “partial school day”, meaning they miss “at least [20%] of the instructional hours regularly provided on a single school day”, will be considered “absent” for that day.The new polices have already taken effect in D.C. public schools.

In a series of personal interviews on April, 23, 2014, three Woodrow Wilson High School administrators provided valuable insight on the implementation of the new truancy policies, and what effect the policies have had on truancy rates in their school thus far. The official truancy statistics for the 2013-2014 school year will be published after the last day of class. However, one Wilson administrator stated that since the implementation of the new policies in August, the truancy rates at Woodrow Wilson have increased between 6-8%. The new truancy polices are more strict in terms of class time students are allowed to miss. Accordingly, it is fair to predict that at the end of the 2013-2014 academic school year truancy rates for most, if not all, D.C. public schools will be higher.

More students are being marked truant than the rules require. The new regulations require all D.C. schools to mark a student “absent” for that day if they miss “at least [20%] of the instructional hours regularly provided on a single school day.” A Wilson administrator stated, “20% of the instructional school day at Wilson figures out to about 81 to 86 minutes.” However, the implementation of this policy has allowed for students who miss a mere 45 minutes of instructional time to be marked “absent” for the day.

Wilson runs on a “block schedule,” meaning students have fewer classes per day because the instructional time per class is longer than normal (90-minute instead of 50-minute classes). However, Wilson’s first period is attended every day for only 45 minutes a day. In implementing the new truancy policies at Wilson an administrator explained “even if students only miss the first 45-minute period they will be considered “absent” in the system for that day per tracking and reporting procedures.” This means students who could not make it to first period because of transportation, or other issues will be considered absent for the entire school day even if they attend every other class. “This is a huge issue,” stated a Wilson administrator “because transportation issues are not considered a valid reason for missing school time, even if the redline is single tracking or the metro system is completely shutdown.”

When asked why Wilson students are absent the staff cited transportation as the most common reason. Administrators differed on whether transportation should be considered an excuse. A Wilson administrator stated “the school does not consider transportation an excuse for being tardy or absent because in the real world students must learn to be on time to jobs.” However, many students commute from the South East quadrant of the District to Wilson High School, which is located in the North West quadrant of the city. Without traffic, the journey may take over an hour and a half for some students.

Another common reason for missing school involves the student’s responsibilities at home. Wilson staff members have found that taking care of younger siblings is another common reason for being late and subsequently being marked absent from school. Many older siblings at Wilson are fully responsible for their younger brothers and sisters. Their responsibilities include getting their younger siblings ready for school and making sure they arrive to their elementary or middle schools on time. The Wilson attendance counselor commented on this issue. She stated, “Some students ride the metro with their younger siblings to school and then ride it back to Wilson. These students are commuting hours a day by doing this and may only miss first period but are still marked absent for the entire day.”

National attendance experts are citing New York City’s attendance policies as an effective way to reduce truancy rates. Unlike D.C., New York targets any students who accumulate large numbers of absences, excused or unexcused. Under this model, schools must track and analyze all absences at weekly meetings. Schools then provide one-on-one mentors for chronically absent students and if necessary work with outside agencies to connect families with social services.

David A. Catania, a D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate who wrote two of the recent truancy-related D.C. laws agrees that programs like New York’s would be beneficial to D.C. public school students. “Absolutely I believe we should move beyond truancy to total absences, but the situation was so dire that we had to start somewhere,” Catania claimed.

Programs like New York’s would be benefit D.C. students and families. Many students at Wilson are late or missing classes for reasons that are seemingly out of their control. At the mercy of the public transportation system, students are being marked late because of delayed trains. Additionally, older students are burdened with the responsibility of making sure their younger siblings get to school as well. Providing one-on-one mentors for students as soon as they begin to miss classes would allow schools to get to the core cause of each individual student’s attendance issues. The schools could then tailor their efforts to each student’s needs and connect struggling families with outside agencies to help with transportation problems, childcare, or any other services the family may need. D.C. must take further steps in reducing its unwaveringly high truancy rates and adopting a program similar to New York’s attendance program would be a move in the right direction.