CLAIRE PARKER, MANAGING EDITOR:
Illustration by Maria Brescia-Weiler
It’s 9:15 on a Friday morning, and junior Druex Collins is standing at the front entrance of the school, just inside the glass doors. It is her first time being part of the small crowd of late arrivals held at the front entrance during first period. Collins arrived at school at 9:08, 23 minutes late. Under D.C.’s new attendance policy, she will be marked absent for the entire 390 minute school day.
The policy, known as the 20 percent rule, is part of DC Municipal Regulation 5-A21, effective for all D.C. public schools as of June 2013. The policy defines being present as being “enrolled and registered for at least eighty percent (80 percent) of the full instructional day,” and mandates that students who miss more than 20 percent of the school day be marked absent for the entire day.
While technically the 20 percent cut-off under the new attendance policy is 10:03, the management software schools use called DC STARS considers one class period to be 20 percent of the day. This, coupled with Wilson’s policy of holding students who arrive after 9:10 at the door, means that a Wilson student who misses only 6.5 percent of the day is considered absent.
The policy is an attempt to curb D.C.’s truancy epidemic. While truancy rates have declined in recent years, they are still a problem. According to a study by the Urban Institute, 2,500, or 20 percent, of D.C. high school students are chronically truant, meaning they have been absent unexcused for more than 15 days. At some schools, such as Anacostia and Ballou, nearly half of the student body is chronically truant. Last year at Wilson, 282 students, or 17 percent of the student population, were truants. If the new policy had been in place last year, 1244 students would have been considered truant, which would have made Wilson’s truancy rate 73 percent.
“I think [truancy] is a real and chronic problem for some students,” says Principal Pete Cahall. “I think being late is a bigger problem. And there’s a direct correlation between a student’s attendance and their academic achievement. Those kids who have a higher rate of being absent, there’s a direct correlation to them having below a 2.0.”
Consequences for truants can be severe. After a student’s fifth unexcused absence, a letter is sent home to their parents, and they are supposed to meet with their student support team. After the 10th absence, students receive a warning letter from the Metropolitan Police Department, followed by a court referral after their 15th absence. Out-of-boundary students can be sent back to their neighborhood schools if they accumulate 10 unexcused absences in a year.
Sophomore Anthony Bass, standing next to Collins at the front entrance, says “I think this [policy] is ridiculous because I only miss one class and I’m absent for the whole day, so there is no point in me coming.”
Collins, after finding out about the policy, says “I’m very shocked. I can’t believe that. That’s so stupid.” She agrees with Bass that the policy disincentivizes students who arrive late from coming to school at all.
“Parents have called and complained about [the policy],” says DCPS Director of Student Attendance Andrea Allen. “They wanted us to explain why that rule is in place. And our position is it’s the law and that’s what we adhere to.”
Cahall believes the policy has encouraged parents and students to document absences, but thinks it is unfair to Wilson students since the skinny period of the class schedule is at the beginning of the day, meaning Wilson students have less time to get to school than students at other schools with block schedules do.
After the first semester of the school year, Wilson is feeling the effects of the new policy. Already 801 students have five or more unexcused absences, 397 have reached the chronic truancy level, and 207 require court referrals. But Wilson does not have the support staff to take action.
“It’s a crazy policy because we don’t have the tools to implement it,” says Cahall. “The impact on the school has been the amount of manpower and hours that it takes [to implement]. There are all these things that take time and people. We would need 20 people to do what they’re asking us to do.”
Cahall says he has been fighting the regulation and searching for ways to “trick the system.” For the second semester, he is thinking about using the CAS machines where students swipe in to time-stamp students instead of using STARS. Another proposal is to hold students who arrive after 9:10 in a tardy hall in the cafeteria and mark them tardy to first period instead of absent.
“It’s a regulation that cannot be implemented with fidelity,” says Cahall. “I don’t necessarily have a problem with the policy, whether it’s 20 percent or 40 percent, but the fact is we’re penalizing kids, parents, and resources for the school.”