Testimony of Alex Peerman, Policy & Advocacy Associate
Good morning Committee Chairman Catania, and members of the Committee on Education. My name is Alex Peerman and I am the Policy and Advocacy Associate at DC Lawyers for Youth, a research, advocacy, and direct service organization that seeks to improve DC’s juvenile justice system. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today at the performance oversight hearing for the Deputy Mayor for Education.
As youth advocates, we want every student to be engaged in school every day, learning the skills necessary to become a successful young adult. Increasing in-seat attendance is a crucial first step to improving student achievement. My testimony today will focus on DME’s role as chair of the Citywide Truancy Task Force. As you all know, poor school attendance in the District is a complicated issue with a multitude of root causes – including student, family, school, and economic factors – that very often must be analyzed and addressed on an individual case-by-case basis. The Task Force is an important tool for coordinating the many agencies whose efforts are required to address these root causes.
First my testimony will document that many schools are still reporting unacceptably low in-seat attendance, and that these schools are also struggling to comply with the requirements of DC’s anti-truancy statutes. Then I will turn to DME’s role as the chair of the Truancy Task Force, which should be to coordinate resources for the implementation of these requirements so that they will have the greatest impact on attendance. Finally, I will make three recommendations: 1) that DME should prioritize resources to improve early interventions before seeking to increase court referrals, 2) that DME should continue to support programs that serve as an alternative to court referral, and 3) that DME should broaden the work of the truancy task force to examine broader issues of school engagement such as school discipline and school climate.
DCPS Data Show that SST Compliance Is Poor
The most recent data we have available on the activities of school-based student support teams (SSTs) come from the DC Public Schools (DCPS) performance oversight responses. DCPS reported that, based on attendance records, DC’s attendance statute required that 8,105 students receive an SST meeting. Of these, the schools only conducted 2,902. Of these 2,902, only 1,100 resulted in the successful identification of any of the students’ barriers to attendance. The function of a school-based student support team (SST), as defined in the South Capitol Memorial Act, is “developing and implementing action plans and strategies … to enhance the student's success with services, incentives, intervention strategies, and consequences for dealing with absenteeism.” Given that the function of an attendance SST meeting is to identify the barriers to attendance and create an action plan to address them, the SST meetings in which no barriers were identified are unlikely to be fulfilling their purpose.
Based on these data, DCPS effectively has an 86% non-compliance rate with the SST requirements of the District’s truancy statutes. Also, it should be noted that in the remaining 14% of cases, the data do not tell us whether the attendance action plan was successfully implemented; even those students may not have received any meaningful intervention. As DCPS wrote in its responses, “[T]his burden is large and we are struggling to comply. . . . As we struggle with our capacity to keep pace with the volume of student absences, it is difficult to determine whether the attendance-related SSTs are having the intended impact of reducing truancy.”
DME’s Role in Directing Scarce Resources
This observation, that the resources necessary for providing meaningful truancy interventions are currently lacking, brings me to the role of DME. Based on its responses, it seems that DME has played a positive role in helping agencies coordinate the truancy referral process. It seems from the data that either schools are not referring students to CSS before an SST has been conducted or that CSS is not accepting referrals in which an SST has not been conducted. It is important to clarify this policy and practice, and it is our position that court referral should not occur unless an SST meeting has been conducted and its action plan has been implemented. Furthermore, given that the Family Court is not well-equipped to address the root causes of truancy or to handle the volume of truancy cases, DME should direct its resources towards the earlier truancy interventions, most importantly the work of SSTs.
However, DME is not in a position to fully address schools’ current inability to comply with the SST requirement. In the interim it is important that the referral process continue to prevent court referral except when the student has not only had an SST meeting, but also has received meaningful supports and failed to respond to those supports.
Also, DME’s responses highlight three programs that it has helped coordinate to increase attendance: the Parent and Adolescent Support Services (PASS) program, the High School Case Management program, and the Truancy Court Diversion program. Though the size of the programs was relatively limited, it seems that they both served as alternatives to court referral and increased attendance, with varying levels of success. DME should continue to explore, resource, and implement research-based supports and interventions that increase school engagement and attendance.
In order to help DME most effectively promote attendance in the District, we recommend that the Council promote the following through its oversight:
- As chair of the Truancy Task Force, DME should proactively prioritize available anti-truancy resources to support early interventions, such as holding SST meetings and implementing recommended service plans. The flip side of this recommendation is that we should not be spending more time and money on court referrals until we have robust early interventions, except in cases where students and/or families flatly refuse to participate in the SST process. Efforts should focus first on helping students and families address the root causes of truancy.
- DME should continue coordinating effective programs that serve as an alternative to court referral or that can help schools implement their SST mandates.
- DME should shift the focus of attendance initiatives from truancy alone to the broader issue of school engagement. Achievement requires not just attendance, but genuine engagement and enthusiasm. Adopting a school engagement mentality would help address attendance, plus related issues of school discipline and school climate.
In closing, I appreciate all the work that the Council is doing to ensure that every student is in school every day. We look forward to working with stakeholders to continue to improve implementation of the South Capitol Act and the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act. Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify today. I am available to answer questions you may have.
 “Reducing Truancy and Reconnecting Youth to Educational Opportunities,” accessed February 18, 2014, http://dme.dc.gov/page/reducing-truancy-and-reconnecting-youth-educational-opportunities.
 Truancy Prevention (National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, February 2009), http://www.promoteprevent.org/sites/www.promoteprevent.org/files/resources/Truancy%20Prevention2.pdf.
 Unfortunately, the question regarding how many SSTs had been conducted this year was not asked of PCSB, so charter schools are excluded from this analysis.
 DC Public Schools FY2013 Performance Oversight Responses (District of Columbia Public Schools, February 2014), 87–88.
 David A. Catania, South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012, 2012, 3, http://dcclims1.dccouncil.us/images/00001/20120329100554.pdf.
 DC Public Schools FY2013 Performance Oversight Responses, 88–89.
 Deputy Mayor for Education FY13 Oversight Questions (Deputy Mayor for Education, February 2014), 29.
 DC Public Schools FY2013 Performance Oversight Responses, 88. Q70 Attachment CFSA, CSS and SST Referrals, SY 13-14 (1/5/2014) Summary by Grade.
 Akiva Liberman and Meaghan Cahill, Variation in 2010-11 Truancy Rates Among District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) High Schools and Middle Schools (District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute, Urban Institute, November 2012), i.
 Deputy Mayor for Education FY13 Oversight Questions, 29–31.