Testimony of HyeSook Chung, Executive Director: Hearing on the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013

Testimony of HyeSook Chung, Executive Director
DC Action for Children

Hearing on the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013

Before the Committee of the Whole and the
Committee on Education of the District of Columbia

February 12, 2013

Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Catania and members of the Council. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council as it considers the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013 (“Straight A Act”). My name is HyeSook Chung, and I am the Executive Director of DC Action for Children and a proud mother of two young DCPS students.

DC Action for Children (“DC Action”) provides data-based analysis and policy leadership on critical issues facing DC children and youth. Our vision is of a District where children and youth who are most in need of health, education, safety and financial well-being are receiving competent and equitable services.

Today, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to become the home of DC KIDS COUNT, DC Action is the primary source of data on conditions and outcomes for all children and youth in DC. We work closely with city agencies, the school system and providers to get the most accurate and timely data to present clear and accessible analysis. Our public policy agenda is based on this critical data.

I would like to thank Councilmember Catania’s staff for their helpful briefing on this bill’s intent and purpose.  DC Action applauds Councilmember Catania’s focus on creating more effective and efficient public agencies to serve children and families in DC, both in this committee and in the Committee on Health.

My testimony will focus on five recommendations:

•    Take a preventive approach,
•    Use sound data,
•    Address absenteeism earlier,
•    Examine evidence from other jurisdictions, and
•    Consider capacity implications of this legislation.

Take a Preventative Approach

We hope that we can take a preventive approach to addressing absenteeism so that we both:

•    Support children and families to remain engaged in and with school; and,
•    Support the school system, CFSA and the courts to improve how they manage and approach solving absenteeism.

In this testimony, I will refer to both absenteeism and truancy. While “truancy” is a legal definition that this bill seeks to alter, DC Action believes “chronic absenteeism” is a better term for the problem at hand. Truancy refers only to unexcused absences and carries the stigma of bad behavior on the part of students. In contrast, chronic absenteeism includes all absences and frames missing school as a sign of distress.

National research defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of the school year for any reason.  Whether absences are excused or unexcused, students who are chronically absent from school miss opportunities to learn.

Use Sound Data

DC must know more about the scope of chronic absenteeism to formulate effective policy responses. Building robust absenteeism data collection and reporting standards should be a key concern of this committee.

Notably, and under your leadership, this was addressed in the South Capitol Street Memorial Act of 2012, which specifies data collection and reporting from school-based student support teams on several measures including:

•    How many students are referred to school-based support teams due to unexcused absences;
•    What services these students accessed via the support team; and,
•    What barriers keep students from attending school.

This is a good start.

But it must be enhanced by data that goes beyond citywide averages. Citywide data simply do not reflect enough nuances about current attendance challenges. For example, we recommend examining the data by school, neighborhood, gender, age/grade, family income and other relevant characteristics and potential predictors.

We must also know more about the “why.” A 2012 Inspector General report noted that DCPS officials had some ideas about why students were missing school, but they didn’t have data to support their claims.  We cannot devise effective solutions to a problem if we don’t understand more about why it is happening.

We must also understand more about patterns of absenteeism for individual students. We hope this will be able to happen organically once OSSE fully implements the State Longitudinal Education Data System (SLED).

Finally, on the data, we want to ensure that data collection and analysis is a joint effort of all agencies involved, including DCPS, CFSA and MPD, which is not currently the case.  While the “Straight A” Act would broaden the role of CFSA in absenteeism response, it does not create the necessary architecture for good data sharing practices.

Address Absenteeism Earlier

Starting absenteeism prevention in high school is too late. Even middle school is too late. We must start as early as possible.

While it is usually older students who are labeled “truant,” research shows that chronic absenteeism usually begins in the early grades and that early intervention can be more effective than punitive responses once a student is older.

These early absences are not specifically addressed in this proposed legislation. DC-specific data, including data from DC KIDS COUNT, shows how important these early years are to improving math and reading proficiency and, presumably, high school graduation rates.

In Baltimore City, for example, data reveal the extent of chronic absenteeism in early grades. 30 percent of students who entered Pre-Kindergarten in 2008 were chronically absent in one or both of their first two years of school. 

Examine Evidence from Other Jurisdictions

To make policies effective, we should look to evidence-based research emerging from other jurisdictions. According to a review of the literature by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), successful intervention programs should include both meaningful sanctions, which this bill focuses on, and meaningful incentives for children and their families to make positive changes, which this bill does not address. 

We encourage the Council to learn more about attendance boosting policies implemented in other city school districts, including:

•    Oakland, CA: The District Attorney and Office of Education have collaborated on a truancy handbook for schools and an attendance toolkit for multiple stakeholders. Housing authority workers help make sure students get to school.
•    Baltimore, MD: Child welfare workers attend regular attendance meetings at schools and have access to real time attendance data for children in foster care. The Maryland Transit Agency encourages students to text feedback concerning problems on their commute to school, and uses that data to improve bus service. Church volunteers reach out to parents of chronically absent students.
•    New York, NY: City Year workers monitor students with at-risk attendance and call them when they are absent.

Consider Capacity Implications of this Legislation

Several agencies are involved in solving the problem of chronic absenteeism. We want to ensure they have the capacity (and not just funding) to do what is required of them by this legislation.

In the 2011-12 academic school year, CFSA received reports of educational neglect for 1,781 children. Last year, more than 45,000 students attended DCPS and 11 percent were truant. If those rates continue, CFSA would expect more than 4,950 referrals, a nearly three-fold increase over last year. 

Conclusion

DC Action welcomes the opportunity to work in partnership with you, Chairman Mendelson and Councilmember Catania, and with all of the members of the Committee on Education and your staff, as well as CFSA, schools and the courts to ensure that every child in DC can stay in school and reach his or her full potential.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

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