To 12-year-old me, my middle school assistant principal seriously overused the word ‘truancy’

By UELIP Associate: Larry Sanders

Of course, I had no statistical evidence to validate that point, but it seemed like in every encounter I had with him – be it private or public – that term managed to come up. Once my friends and I actually learned what the word meant, we became even more perplexed. Missing school could not be as big of a deal as he was making it. Students miss school all the time. There must be bigger issues to solve than preventing absences.

Oh, to be young and naïve. Not only is truancy one of the bigger problems in urban public school districts, but it can also help explain why performance in many of these districts has been historically poor. DC Council has been particularly adamant about truancy eradication in DC Public Schools, and as a UELIP in the Office of Data & Strategy, I have worked with my supervisor, Fonda Sutton, and a host of others on a) discussing means of further reducing truancy and b) demonstrating to Council that already established efforts are working, with forthcoming efforts being developed to continue curtailing this issue.

Truancy reduction has not come easily, but DCPS has formulated plans that have certainly worked thus far. Innovation and collaboration have been essential to their endeavors, and truancy numbers across the board are declining, even with the revised definition of chronic truancy. Parental engagement has key; many parents were unaware of certain definitions regarding absences and truancy, and DCPS has made strides toward being more transparent and informative with these designations.

Nonetheless, every plan created to eliminate truancy will be for naught if the students are unhappy and disengaged during school time. As part of the school system’s strategic plan, “A Capital Commitment,” DCPS has pledged to improve student satisfaction; by school year 2016-2017, the hope is 90% of DCPS students will say they like their school. In the grand scheme of education and student performance, student satisfaction somehow gets lost in the conversation. Schools should certainly want to ensure students are learning and being challenged, but they should also want to ensure that the students are enjoying those lessons. I, for one, am appreciative of Chancellor Henderson and DCPS’ interest in the student. Educational systems should not be producing robots, nor should they be producing students who are largely disinterested in their curriculum. I am fairly sure a satisfied student will also indicate a high-performing, motivated student.

It is quite easy to place a number on truancy and observe data as a means of creating truancy reduction plans. Quantitative data can obviously be extremely helpful, but sometimes, qualitative information can provide a much grander picture of a situation. It is not difficult to visually observe the impact – be it positive or negative – that a school is having on its students. Because we still have incomplete data, I am unable to confirm this assertion, but I am willing to bet that schools and instructors who have discovered ways to make their lessons more engaging for students are those who have seen the largest decrease in truancy. Although work still needs to be done, DCPS has done an excellent job of attacking this issue, and their truancy plans can unquestionably function as a model for urban school districts throughout the country.

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