WASHINGTON, D.C. – David Clarke isn’t a cop or a truant officer, but for a few years now he has taken his fight against truancy directly to students’ front doors. Behind those doors, Clarke often finds students and their families in crisis causing unexcused absences.
Clarke, the admissions director for the six D.C. schools operated by Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI), said student truancy often has complicated underlying causes.
“Most of our students are not skipping school just for the heck of it,” Clarke said.
“I have found some of our kids with no food, no electricity, no heat or hot water. Some were left to babysit younger siblings. Others were afraid to leave home because of neighborhood beefs,” said Clarke. “Some had no clean clothes, no money to do laundry and were embarrassed to come to school because they didn’t feel presentable.”
Mary Rinder, co-director of SESI’s High Road Academy for high school students with learning disabilities, said getting these students back into the classroom is the first step.
“Our first priority is to get these students back in school where we can get them the help they really need to ensure they keep coming back,” she said.
SESI staff works with the students, their families, the D.C. Public Schools and the city’s Child and Family Services Agency to secure that assistance, Rinder explained.
“Our students and their families may need additional help from D.C. Public Schools or help from a social service agency,” she said. “Sometimes, helping means that we make legally-mandated reports to the proper authorities. We do everything we can to assist our students and help them to succeed.”
Rebecca Williams, director of SESI’s High Road Upper School for high school students with emotional and behavioral challenges, said SESI administrators often go beyond the call of duty to meet their students’ needs.
“Our staff has helped students get warm coats, clothes and shoes, made food runs, helped students get Social Security cards, replaced missing fare cards for Metro buses, and rearranged their class schedules to accommodate child care needs or to allow them to be home when younger brothers and sisters get there,” Williams said. “I recently picked up one of our students every day for a week to make sure he got to school.”
But the organization’s point man in this effort is Clarke.
“Getting help for our students begins with David Clarke,” said Michael Kaufman, CEO of the Yardley, Pa.-based SESI, which serves District students ages 5-21 with learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral challenges. “David’s approach is proactive. When our students see David at their front doors, it demonstrates to them and their families how much we care about their well-being as well as their education.”
Truancy has become a hot-button issue in Washington, where the number of habitually and chronically truant students exceeds 8,000 children per year. Those numbers prompted the D.C. Council to tighten truancy requirements last fall and to quicken the pace at which child welfare and police intervene.
Clarke began to make home visits to truant students a few years ago, and says he averages 60 home visits each school year. “I want to intervene with our students before their truancy becomes chronic,” said Clarke, who ventures out into some of the District’s toughest neighborhoods when a student racks up six to eight unexcused absences.
Clarke is sometimes accompanied on home visits by fellow SESI admissions director Tina Stith-Twine or by a school social worker, but often he goes alone. A former Hofstra University football player, Clarke still cuts an imposing figure, but he said he still times his home visits between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., when it’s likely to be safest.
Said Kaufman of Clarke’s efforts, “The only way we can make a difference in our students’ lives is for them to come to school and stay in school. Nothing is more important to us than to help them learn, grow, develop social skills and graduate.”
In addition to the High Road Upper School and High Road Academy, both on Edgewood Street N.E., SESI operates four other schools in the District including the High Road Middle School on 1st Street and the High Road Academy on Kansas Avenue, N.E.; and the High Road Primary School and High Road Primary Academy, both on Taylor Street N.W. You can learn more about SESI Schools at www.sesi-schools.com.