Ward 8 Democrats agreed at a panel on educational deficiencies in the District, that the schools in the ward and all of D.C. are lacking and something must be done now.

On Feb. 17, the Ward 8 Democrats held a panel discussion “I Believe the Children Are the Future? A Discussion on the State of Student Attendance in DCPS/DCPCS” at R.I.S.E. Demonstration on the campus of St. Elizabeths East. The panelists were Elizabeth Davis, president of Washington Teachers’ Union; D.C. State Board of Education member Markus Batchelor; Andrea Allen, attendance director for District of Columbia Public Schools; and Malana Wallace, a scholar with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Batchelor said no one is happy about young people not consistently attending school.

Markus Batchelor, who represents Ward 8 on the D.C. State Board of Education, says that D.C. schools are lacking in resources. (Courtesy Photo)

“We are frustrated about the findings around attendance and the broader issues that are affecting our students,” Batchelor said. “Our schools should be preparing them for college and career. There needs to be improvement in accountability, data collection and resources that are reaching to our students.”

Each year, the District schools release a report on student truancy. The latest report, which came out in September 2017, said there was an increase in truancy during the 2016-2017 school year, a five percent increase from 2015-2016. Reasons cited for the excess absences include changes in the attendance law that restricts schools’ ability to accept excuse notes and increases in the fidelity of attendance data entry.

The leadership of the District’s school system has come under criticism lately for reports of bad attendance among students, particularly at Ballou High School and Dunbar High School. Allen said that 29 percent of all District public high school students are chronically absent or have missed more than 10 percent of school days since the start of school in late August. On Feb. 20, D.C. Schools Chancellor resigned over charges helping his daughter get into a highly sought after D.C. public school.

Allen said her office intends to focus more on getting parents involved in making sure that their children go to school. “We need to work on parent education,” she said. “They need to understand why attendance is important. We should also explore the fact that the school itself may be the issue. Is the school welcoming to parents? I know we have much work to do in this are.”

Davis said teachers should play a role in solving the attendance crisis but too often, the teacher is the one who is blamed. “Teachers in some schools are under pressure to pass 80 percent of their students,” she said. “They must do this in order to get high evaluations.”

It is widely known in the District that if a student is late to school, they often cannot get into the building for classes. Batchelor doesn’t like that. “Students need to be in school and even if they are late, they need to be learning something,” he said.

Allen said each school should have Student Support Teams that look at school attendance but confessed that while all schools supposedly have this group, not all of them are active.

The discussion had Mable Carter discouraged. “We have failed our children,” Carter said. She suggested the schools need more nurses and outreach counselors to help students.

While school attendance dominated the discussion, there was talk about the grading scandal that has been brewing at Ballou. Recently, it has been revealed that many students are getting good grades for courses that are intended for the college-bound only to find when they get to their higher education institutions, they weren’t properly equipped to handle the work and must take non-credit, yet costly remedial classes. “This is an open-secret,” Batchelor said.

Davis said Ballou isn’t the only place where this is taking place. “This is a problem system-wide,” she said. “Not only are we setting our students up to fail, they are incurring debt. They aren’t prepared for the workforce and they have to pay back thousands of dollars in student loans.”