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Chancellor's Testimony on Truancy and the Implementation of Truancy Reform Initiatives

Monday, June 29, 2015

Chancellor's Testimony on Truancy and the Implementation of Truancy Reform Initiatives

Chancellor's Testimony on Truancy and the Implementation of Truancy Reform Initiatives

GOVERNMENT OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

DC PUBLIC SCHOOLS

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Public Roundtable on Truancy and the Implementation of Truancy Reform Initiatives

Testimony of Kaya Henderson Chancellor, DC Public Schools

Before the Committee on Education Council of the District of Columbia

June 29, 2015
Room 500
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Good morning Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso and the Committee of the Whole. I want to thank you for continuing to partner with us on student attendance and truancy reduction. Over the past few years, DC Public Schools has continued to make progress in its implementation and monitoring of attendance processes put in place to reduce truancy in our schools. Our attendance staff has worked diligently to adhere to the protocols and provide needed supports to our students. Much of our progress can also be attributed to the strong partnerships we have with DMHHS, DME, CFSA, CSS, OAG, MPD, JGA and the many community-based organizations with whom we work. As we all know, we cannot do this work in isolation and it will take the combined commitment of the entire District to see the significant reduction in truancy that we all desire.
 
Today, I want to tell you about the progress we made during the 2014-15 school year and talk about our two-pronged approach to battling truancy. We continue to focus both on compliance with attendance requirements and on making school more engaging for students. Please keep in mind that this data was compiled as of June 21, 2015 and attendance staff will continue to conduct data clean up through July 2nd. Figures may change slightly before we complete our annual truancy report to Council.
 
I have submitted longer testimony to Council, but will be brief in my remarks, in part because I want to save time for you to engage with the two DCPS principals who have joined me at this hearing, Victorie Thomas from Patterson Elementary School and Tanya Roane from Cardozo Education Campus.
 
Let me first tell you about the progress we have made in reducing our truancy rate in recent years. We project that our truancy rate for the just-ended school year will be 17.9%. This is the lowest truancy rate we have seen since we began tracking reliable truancy data. It is almost a half percentage point reduction from the previous year and more than a 10 percentage point reduction from our rate five years ago.
 
This increase is particularly notable given that the definition of an unexcused absence changed for this school year. Now missing only 20% of the school day, often less than one class, can leave a student unexcused for the whole day. I am eager to participate in a discussion about this 80/20 rule.
 
I am proud of our improvement in truancy, but as I have told this committee many times before, I do no measure our attendance progress only by truancy. I want our students to be in school, learning, on every single day of school. This is why we also track in-seat attendance (ISA). This year, our district-wide in-seat attendance was nearly 90%. We improved by a full percentage point over the previous year and by three and a half percentage points over our ISA from two years ago. Our friends at Attendance Works are clear both that this is the most important data to track, and that increases of this degree are remarkable.
 
So how did we do it? And more importantly, how are we going to continue the positive trend? As you might guess, there is no one answer to these questions. We have provided professional development for our staff, set attendance goals with individual principals, offered incentives and rewards to schools that show improvement, and have improved communications with parents.
 
We have also worked hard to improve our compliance with attendance requirements. This year, DCPS completed 65.4% of required referrals to CFSA. This was both the highest referral rate and the greatest number of referrals (1,937) that DCPS has ever made. In addition, we made 23% of referrals to CSS and held 60.8% of required SST meetings for a staggering 10,600 meetings. While these figures leave us short of our goal, they represent tremendous improvement.
 
As I have told this committee at each of our previous meetings, I have significant doubts that these compliance exercises will help improve student attendance. While I appreciate and take seriously the need to implement the child protections related to these referrals; I also take seriously my job as an educator for each and every one of our students across the city. This means that I must struggle with how we get all of our students to attend school every day.
 
The only right answer is that we must work to make school a safe, welcoming, engaging, and compelling place for our students. To this end, we have great things in store for the coming year. I want to briefly provide a few highlights.
 
We are focusing more explicitly on school culture in some of our lowest performing schools. We are helping schools think about how adults in the school interact with students, how students interact with each other, and how we can establish a warm, predictable environment at each school. I am very optimistic that this work will make school an inviting place for our students and that it will increase attendance.
 
We are continuing to prioritize student satisfaction. In the past year, we provided $5 million in funding to schools specifically to improve student satisfaction. While final figures won’t be in until later this summer, we expect to see a nice increase in student satisfaction rates. We also know that schools offered students extra field trips, more arts programming, bullying prevention, and more student satisfaction funding.
 
We are continuing to focus on our 9th graders – the students most likely to be truant. As a result of the extra attention we have provided through our 9th grade academies over the past two years, in-seat attendance is up 11 percentage points (from 67% to 78%), truancy rates are down 14 percentage points (from 81% to 67%), and suspension rates are down 8 percentage points (from 37% to 29%). We still have more work to do, but our 9th grade academies are working.
 
We are also making the core academic experience during the school day more engaging. Through cornerstone assignments, we are ensuring that every student in DCPS receives four high-interest, rigorous, interactive lessons in each class. These cornerstone assignments serve as models for quality instruction for all of our teachers.
 
We have also made significant investments in our high schools, where attendance issues are most acute. For the upcoming school year, every high school will have at least 6 Advanced Placement Classes and 20 elective courses. This will allow our students to explore their own interests - from African-American literature to accounting, from Calculus to current events.
 
These new investments will build upon our previous work to build NAF academies – strong, vertically aligned training in high-wage, high-growth careers -- in our comprehensive high schools.
 
In conclusion, DCPS has seen solid improvement in “in-seat attendance” and reduction of our truancy rate. We are very proud of the hard work our schools have done; and as we mentioned earlier, these gains would be impossible without the efforts of our external partners working with a dedicated attendance team. At the same time, we know that we still have much work to do. We are working to increase our compliance with CFSA and CSS requirements. With the heightened focus on comprehensive school supports, increased monitoring of compliance work, school climate initiatives, high school investments, and improved student satisfaction, we feel that attendance will continue to improve.
 
Thank you and I would be happy to answer your questions.