Tackling truancy, part 3: The solution is collaboration

This is the third installment of a series on truancy in DC schools. Read part 1 and part 2.

Truancy isn't a new problem, nor one unique to DC. School systems around the country have tried various approaches that leverage state services and civil society to engage the child and their family on many levels. Many have been able to take a bite out of chronic truancy.

Truancy. Image from EducationNext

In the end, however, truancy isn't the problem; it is a symptom of social dysfunction that requires a comprehensive social policy response. There's nothing wrong with treating symptoms; many become a problem unto themselves. However, lasting success won't come until someday we address underlying issues of poverty, alienation, community collapse, and educational failure.

Before considering those more comprehensive programs, let's address the common trope of simply employing a "tough love" punitive approach with the children themselves.

Washington State's punishments haven't reduced truancy

Washington State passed the so-called "Becca Bill" in 1995, a law that required prosecuting children after 7 absences in a month or 10 in a year. Children could get sentences of up to 7 days in juvenile hall.

In 2005, 15,000 children went to court, and that number hasn't decreased materially in years. This shows that this policy isn't solving truancy. There's no evidence to suggest the numbers declined soon after the law was implemented either; on the contrary, it appears Becca's Bill may have made things worse, with rates rising consistently through the Aughts.

The results of a punitive approach in Washington State.
Graphic from a report by the Washington State Center for Court Research.

Denver's approach goes inside the school

Another option is to have disciplinary procedures inside the school for truancy. Many jurisdictions have tried this, including DC. DCPS apathy undermined such an effort here, but Denver's program is considered a model. Their Student Attendance Review Boards contain representatives of social services, probation, juvenile justice, police, local businesses and civic leaders, school staff, parents, and city officials.

With wide-ranging options derived from the resources of these various organizations, the board is able to develop "contracts" with the child and their family that leverage support services throughout the community to resolve the family's troubles. Significantly, the cost of this program is rather low; the Denver boards must only convince one out of every 739 truants to stay in school and graduate in order to pay for itself.

The CMPI model. Graphic from a report by the DC Crime Policy Institute.

DC's approach: build connections to social service agencies

DC tried a related approach that was unconnected to its in-school court experience: the Truancy Case Management Partnership Initiative (CMPI), which excluded the judiciary, police, and prosecutors, but included CFSA, DCPS staff, and the Healthy Families/Thriving Communities collaborative.

The goal was less a contract-oriented approach than to create "linkage" between children and their families to various services. This would, officials hoped, reduce the pressures the children were experiencing and facilitate attendance.

The pilot met with mixed success. It achieved its intermediate goal of lowering pressure on the families, and the families that qualified were indeed under immense strain. Some have suggested that is reason enough to continue, but the program was terminated after truancy rates did not respond significantly.

There may be reasons for this. In DC, truancy as a pattern is established in 8th grade while this program only addressed high schoolers. Perhaps catching the kids before they develop habits of cutting class would be more effective.

Further, the pilot took on the highest-truancy schools; the program may be effective, and simply unable to handle the peer-truancy feedback loop that has metastasized there. A broader test that began in 7th grade across a range of schools would be a better test of this approach.

Truancy begins in 8th grade. Image from a report by the DC Crime Policy Institute.

Minnesota's approach: Long-term contact

The "Check and Connect" program developed in Minnesota takes this coordination even further with a long-term case officer approach. If a student is truant or tardy on a regular basis, the program assigns a monitor/mentor. That person is the advocate, mentor, and service coordinator for the child and their family for two years, focusing entirely on preserving and enhancing the student's attachment to school.

The goal is to prevent a patten where the student oscillates from truancy, to successful intervention, to attendance, to benign neglect by the various institutions, and then back to truancy. As the initial conditions of school, family, and community all encouraged the child to be truant, C&C assumes those conditions will reassert themselves some time after the initial successful intervention. The long-term monitoring tries to prevent the child from returning to that pattern before it begins, allowing positive habits to have a longer period to take hold.

Will Denver's and Minnesota's programs work here?

Some combination of the Denver and Minnesota approaches seem ideal, but of course the District is a different context. Not only is it an urban school district, with all the distractions a child could want located along the walk to school, but it is one with a core of extreme poverty.

DC does not have a bell curve income distribution. Concentrated poverty in the eastern third of the city leaves children with few role models in their neighborhoods, and low expectations for themselves. This means there are fewer civic organizations whose services can be leveraged to encourage pro-social behavior, and there are many adults in this communities who are unemployed and unproductive during the same school day the child is being asked to work.

It is unlikely that these facts on the ground will change in a generation. There are few low-skill jobs in the Washington area, and those that exist often require consistent work history and a professional demeanor. After several years of unemployment, it is unlikely that adults who either lack, or possess no more than a high school diploma will ever be employed again. The children of that community must then be saved despite the negative examples all around them, which is a task that few other communities must strive against.

At the same time, the District is one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. It has resources few others can muster, and a large population of socially-conscious residents of means who can be recruited to help. Engagement with the child and family that promotes a sense of personal stake and commitment in education is the answer. It has been done before, successfully, and if DC faces a more difficult challenge it also possesses better tools.

Rahul Mereand-Sinha was born in DC and grew up nearby in Bethesda. He now lives in Kalorama Triangle with his wife Katherine. He has a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland and moonlights as a macroeconomist. 


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actually, your premise is wrong.

Trunacy IS the problem. It isn't a symptom.

Why are these people poor and dysfunction? Mostly because they are extremely uneducated, and in this economy, right here right now, that means they are unemployable.

And a large part of why they are not educated is they dont want to go to school.

(I didn't want to go to school either).

Blame genetics, 100 years of racism, or whatever. They reality is schools only do a few things well, and solving social problems isn't one of them.

As I said before, miss school more than 3 days and get an ankle braclet. You're going to end up in jail anyway, so we might as start tracking you now before you gun down another 13 people.

That or public lashings. I think they still do that in Singapore.

by charlie on Mar 20, 2013 9:10 am • linkreport

That approach didn't seem to work in Washington State. There's actually a large body of evidence that punishing the child exacerbates the problem.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Mar 20, 2013 9:14 am • linkreport

As you elucidated, this isn't washington state. Again, what percent of DC teenagers end up in college versus jail? Your chart suggests the average in high school is 4 missed days. What is it in DC -- 30? 40? I'd say that is working.

Second, I am not suggesting actual jail time. Just ankle monitors. That isn't a punishment, just a way of tracking them.

Third, while I actually agree with your end result (mentoring) you are ignoring all educational outcomes are essentially triage. Not everyone makes it to college, and not everyone in college goes to grad school. Not everyone in law school makes law review.

And what we need in DC is a system where we get rid of the bad students and and least allow the ones that want to learn to thrive. That is what essentially we have now by allowing the students to self-excuse themselves, but the end result is they are learning a lot of street crime.

by charlie on Mar 20, 2013 10:13 am • linkreport

@charlie: I like the gps ankle bracelet for kids, but not issued or monitored by the courts but by the schools in collaboration with MPD and parents, to pre-empt and avoid immediate and long term involvement with the courts which is undoubtedly a bad, severe and expensive experience. But the Council needs to authorize a law to permit this. Given the potential ramifications of doing nothing, it would likely be a cost saving program.

Our compulsory education should give the government some leverage in putting in place effective mechanisms to ensure that -- regardless of parental involvment -- the students under 18 get to school every day.

Let the principals manage the program for those with 3-5 unexcused absences. Those children, who have so little supervision are at risk of becoming victims as well as menaces. (Dennis the menaces). I bet some of the kids might actually appreciate that someone is looking out for them, especially those who live in neighborhoods plaugued by crime. I feel for the kids at Tyler House with gunmen shooting right outside their front door.

But I do think the challenge with truancy is that it is a symptom as RMS suggests.

CFSA's current program management and the fact that their services are provided only to those families who volunteer to take part are problematic. A parent who doesn't have the mindset to properly care for their child and get them to school isn't going to volunteer to take time out of their day to participate in a voluntary program.

(btw, I can't believe you even mentioned "genetics"... clearly not a way to promote a constructive public discussion on solutions, especially in this town.)

by outcomes on Mar 20, 2013 10:31 am • linkreport

In the end, however, truancy isn't the problem; it is a symptom of social dysfunction that requires a comprehensive social policy response.

Can't we use this rationale for essentially any type of social strife. For instance, "violence/crime isn't the problem..it's a symptom of social dysfunction that requires a comprehensive social policy response." In that one sentence, you've absolved the perpetrator and parents of having any responsibility at all.

I really do get that "comprehensive" might include parental involvement but the statement alone is so vanilla that it sounds like empty noise. I disagree w/the idea of an ankle bracelet because of the sheer numbers of truants we currently have. That means in addition to be paying for kids to not go to school, we'll also be paying for them to be monitored so they can go to school. I just don't like that.

W/a 66% dropout rate, truancy is an epidemic. We can use best practices but also must work on changing the status quo. Sure, let's get rid of the bad students. As Kaya suggests, lets double up our advanced programs. But that still doesn't solve the truancy epidemic here. Yes, let's deal w/poverty. But how? Considering the generational issue you're dealing w/here, how do you "unpoverish" a family?

by HogWash on Mar 20, 2013 12:03 pm • linkreport

What I appreciate about the discussion in this series and even about the current push in the City Council is the greater inclusion of CFSA in this process.

Because of underinvestment in general funding for and community understanding of human services we see a number of human services issues expressed in and harming other systems. In this case, human services concerns are being expressed in the educational system. Social work can do great things if we give it a chance, and if we consider and make it something that is positive instead of something punitive.

by Kate on Mar 20, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

@HogWash We already pay when we task MPD to leave scamper sweaty and breathless around the city chasing truants; when some truants steal or get involved in other petty crimes; when they fail or drop out of school; and in some cases when we (at the federal level) end up paying to keep them in prison at a price tag of $40k/yr -- enough to send them to ivy league schools w/o the least bit of rehabilitation, socialization or real job preparedness. There are obvious legal hurdles to gps anklets, but I'd rather nip this problem in the bud than pass the buck and allow it to snowball into bigger problems.

by outcomes on Mar 22, 2013 9:11 am • linkreport

You ask, rhetorically perhaps, how do you "unpoverish" a family? There is a real answer. The same way that beautiful gardens are built: slowly with intention, determination, and care.

More precisely: with great patience; repeated set-backs; and intensive wraparound services that are individualized, family-based, and community-based. And by creating community leaders who can and will return, understand that community, and lead the difficult internal and external path towards community uplift. It takes generations of commitment, the translation of soft skills, and constant reinforcement of inter-community trust. Community-based social safety nets are critical to individual success to cushion people from the hard knocks that happen to everyone, everywhere, and which happen more often in less-privileged communities.

We have not yet made a commitment in this country to do what it takes to systemically and systematically erase poverty. (We did make a commitment to end starvation, and while we have real food security issues and hunger, actual starvation is all but erased. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges is not impossible.) Erasing poverty, even just domestically, is an absolutely daunting challenge, but we waste a lot of money, potential, and human capital by not investing in it as the ultimate goal. While it may seem pie in the sky silly to discuss solving it, it is also denying the plain facts to leave it out of the discussion. It would be like assuming that we cannot beat cancer, and thus not investing in trying.

Thus the GPS solution is a bandaid, and one that will not remotely achieve the outcome its proponents seek. Basic psychology (and probably most any parent) can easily tell you that the more rules and structure you throw at a child who already isn’t following the rules, the more the child will reject that authority. The effects of systemic, multi-generational and institutionalized society-level discrimination piles on top of the already difficult authority-denying landscape we see in adolescence. You are going to take all of that on by telling a child they are functionally on parole and that society doesn't trust them any more than they trust a criminal. Stand in one of those kids shoes (fully and completely) and tell yourself how you would react to this policy.

[While it feeds into a lot of negative individual and societal outcomes and challenges in the current context, on a broader level there is something rather inspiring about the defiance we are seeing, if you think of it out of context. The human spirit, and the indomitable will to defy systems of authority and oppression that do not include you in decision-making, will out.]

And so, anyone proposing GPS tracking of teenagers as a solution has failed to follow simple problem-solving best practices and ask why the problem exists. Therefore, those proponents will never be able to solve this problem. Law and order types can tout its supposed virtues for scaring kids straight, but it amounts to nothing than more of the same that is leading to the school to prison pipeline by telling these kids that we think they are different, outsiders that are not trusted and not wanted in our society. That law and order perspective, which is not unique though hopefully it is ever less present within the serious policy circles trying to address issues within our schools, isn't helping nip anything in the bud. The problem has already snowballed, and American prisons are overrun because our society failed to create systems that work for everyone. It is a waste of so many lives and a disgrace for modern America.

Too few of us want to do what it takes to fix these problems. It is hard work that is often not recognized or socially-rewarded with prestige. Anyone who is serious about truancy, about school reform, about “unpoverishing” families, needs to think about how we get more people involved, simply spending time with people. And how we make it something our society lauds.

Charlie, Hogwash, and Outcomes, I hope you tutor, mentor, or do something to give a little of yourself as you prescribe your solutions. Not to overly sentimental, but ask some of the most talented gardeners how their gardens grow. They’ll most likely tell you it is with love.

If you aren't already, I dare you to get involved and see if you feel the same way in a year.

by optimist on Mar 22, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

Hmm. Maybe RMS is right and they should teach critical thinking at public schools.

by charlie on Mar 22, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

Or they could make school a better and more useful place to be! Problem=Solved

by Ben Avis on Mar 11, 2015 3:05 pm • linkreport

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