A photo of DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson reading to a Tubman Elementary student.
credit: D.C. Public Schools

Soon after becoming the principal of Tubman Elementary in 2013, Amanda Delabar noticed the frequent absence of many students in her school. Her staff was following the D.C. Public Schools attendance procedure, including support meetings with students after their fifth unexcused absence and truancy court referrals after their fifteenth. To truly change attendance patterns, however, Delabar knew she and her team needed to think outside the box.

“I can have the best teachers, they can do the best lessons, we can have the most amazing interventions,” Delabar said. “But if kids aren’t showing up, none of that matters.”

In 2015, her team came up with a solution called the Hot List, which included the name of every student who missed 15 or more days of school the previous year. Tubman teachers and staff aimed to reduce the absences of each student on the Hot List by 50 percent.

Getting parents involved was a main focus of the list. They received shout-outs in the December newsletter if their child was on track to meet their goal, and the school held an end-of-year picnic to celebrate those who did. In the first year of the list, 40 percent of students succeeded in cutting their number of absences in half.

Tubman Elementary

Tubman Elementary students enjoy an end of year picnic. Photo courtesy of Principal Amanda Delebar 

Schools like Tubman are finding innovative solutions to lower chronic absence rates and reduce truancy court referrals, but the issue of attendance remains a large one for D.C. Public Schools. In the 2015-16 school year, 17.4 percent of District students had more than 10 unexcused absences, according to the DCPS Annual Truancy Report. During that same year, 42.3 percent of high schoolers had more than 10 unexcused absences.

One positive trend for DCPS is its 40 percent reduction in suspensions over the course of two years. However, a recent Washington Post investigation casts doubt on those statistics. The Post analysis found at least seven of the District’s 18 high schools have barred students from entering school without recording the prohibited entry as a suspension, leading many education advocates to question the validity of DCPS attendance data.

“If DCPS is this sloppy with the data when it comes to suspension, you have to wonder about the integrity of their attendance recordkeeping overall,” said Eduardo Ferrer, executive director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth.

Delabar said that her school requires every teacher — even those who have been there for 15 years — to go through training on attendance procedure each year. Tubman Elementary has two separate attendance sheets, and school officials check them each day to ensure they match.

“Part of the training as well is reminding teachers that this is a legal document,” Delebar said. “It’s your responsibility to make sure it’s completely up to date and accurate.”

While Tubman has been strict about its recordkeeping, the Post article raises questions about citywide practices. The analysis prompted the Every Student, Every Day Coalition, which includes advocacy organizations, researchers and services providers, to release a statement calling for an audit of all DCPS attendance data from the past four years.

Sharra Greer is the policy director of the Children’s Law Center, one of the founding members of the coalition. She said an audit is necessary because the attendance data could be faulty in more than a few high schools.

“I don’t think we can say there has been a shift in a good direction based on this data when we have so much doubt about whether they’ve been reporting this information correctly,” Greer said.

In its statement, the coalition also calls on DCPS to place a moratorium on all truancy court referrals, which are based on unexcused absences. Greer said it’s possible children who should be suspended are currently being sent to the justice system instead.

“In our minds, the best way to protect the students is let’s just stop and actually figure out what’s going on with the attendance record and stop sending kids to court unnecessarily,” she said.

The city’s truancy task force has worked to amend the 2013 Attendance Accountability Act, which mandates referrals to truancy court once kids have 15 unexcused absences, according to Aurora Steinle, a senior policy advisor for the Deputy Mayor for Education.

“We have not seen evidence that punitive measures actually improve attendance, so we just don’t think this is a good strategy,” she said.

Ferrer agreed, adding that mandatory referrals to truancy court shouldn’t exist. He criticized the Attendance Accountability Act as legislation that wasn’t based in evidence.

When the truancy task force was formed, it focused on reducing youth crime, but now it works to address the needs of all students with attendance issues, according to Steinle.

“It really doesn’t matter if you’re missing school because you’re skipping it and have no excuse at all or you’re missing it because of a transportation barrier or a health issue,” she said. “We want to work on those, too.”

Her task force now includes representatives from the Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Human Services to better address students’ wide range of needs. Steinle said the task force also hopes to collaborate with the Department of Parks and Recreation and D.C. Public Libraries to strengthen their relationships with youth.

Schools are better equipped than the court system to handle students’ problems, Ferrer said. Tubman Elementary provides an example of what schools can do. After the initial success of the Hot List in 2015, Delabar wanted to continue the positive momentum.

“We realized there was a whole bunch more we could do to hopefully increase how many students meet that target,” the principal said.

With a new Hot List for the 2016-17 school year, Delabar and her staff visited students’ homes to discuss with families what potential barriers may stand in the way of their children’s attendance and to offer them resources. Staff members also met with students on a weekly basis. If students had perfect attendance that week, they received a sticker.

“The sticker may sound really silly and small, but the fact that it was consistently the same person checking in on them, the same person giving them their sticker, the same person who had done the home visit, means they had really formed a relationship with that adult,” Delabar said.

Tubman Elementary’s attendance data reflects these extra efforts, as 53 percent of students on the Hot List met their target for the end of the school year. Delabar said a main goal for the upcoming school year is to help students understand the positive relationship between attendance and academic performance.

A photo of a group of students at a park

Tubman Elementary students gather during the end-of-year picnic for those on the Hot List who met their goal. Photo courtesy of Principal Amanda Delabar.

Ferrer also pointed to community-based organizations as useful groups for helping students who are chronically absent. In 2012, the D.C. Council created the Show Up Stand Out program, which oversees and provides funding to several community-based organizations, according to program director Brenda Aleman. Using this funding, the organizations work with elementary and middle schools to find solutions to students’ attendance issues.

“In the elementary schools, it’s mainly a family engagement program, because we know that younger students rely on families to get them to schools,” Aleman said. “At the middle schools, it’s more of a youth engagement type of program where the community-based organizations work directly with the students to engage them in school-based clubs to get them interested in participating in extracurricular activities.”

Funding for Show Up Stand Out has increased every year since its creation, which Aleman said speaks to the city’s commitment to reducing truancy rates. Steinle, who helps organize the truancy task force, said the city will focus on a campaign to increase public awareness about attendance issues in the coming year.

“One thing we think we’ve been missing is a citywide communication and coordination of every student and family feeling like attendance matters and that there’s people who are here to help them and make sure they can be present every day,” Steinle said. “We have a lot planned for this upcoming school year that we’re excited about through the initiative.”