It has long been a pillar of Virginia education policy to increase the high school graduation rate. To advance that goal, several school districts have cracked down on students skipping school. The Richmond Public School system, for instance, has long employed a team of “school attendance officers” to round up truants and get them back into the classroom.
Then last year, in a move that generated little publicity, the General Assembly gutted a 20-year-old anti-truancy law. That bill, according to the Richmond Free-Press, did four things: It (1) doubled from five to 10 the number of days that a student could miss, (2) allowed schools to wait another 10 days before meeting with parents, (3) eliminated most of the authority of school attendance officers to be involved, and (4) allowed school districts to use volunteers instead of paid staff to work on attendance issues.
Now, with support from the Richmond school board, Superintendent Jason Kamras proposes to save $500,000 by eliminating 21 positions slotted for attendance officers and replacing them with seven “attendance liaisons.”
The Richmond Free-Press quoted Bacon’s Rebellion’s friend and comrade-in-arms John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog and the first person outside the educational establishment to notice the change:
Update: In an important comment, Dick Hall-Sizemore takes exception to the way the Richmond Free-Press characterized changes to the anti-truancy law, and suggests that the tweaks might have stemmed from issues specific to Fairfax County, and anything happening in Richmond was unintended consequence.
“Students who are not in school can’t be taught,” Mr. Butcher wrote in a trenchant commentary on the change. “Students who are truant frequently drop out. Students who have dropped out cannot lower the pass rates on state Standards of Learning tests.”
However, reports the newspaper, a backlash is building. The article quoted Butler Peterson, an 18-year RPS veteran:
“We conduct home visits in some of the most impoverished and high-crime neighborhoods in the city,” Mr. Peterson said. “We are the boots on the ground. We are a lifeline for these families. We are the heartbeat of RPS.”
He offered examples of the wraparound services and support that attendance officers provide, including ensuring that students in need have clothes to wear and that families are connected with services that the parents never knew existed or didn’t know how to contact.
Mr. Peterson recounted how an attendance team saved one bullied student from hanging herself and how others got three elementary students back to class after they were found panhandling on Midlothian Turnpike at the behest of parents who needed money to support drug habits.
One officer, he said, checks daily to ensure that youths who have cut classes are not playing on railroad tracks on South Side to keep them from getting killed.
“We see it all,” said attendance officer Breon Eppes, including teens who are defying parents and neglected young children whose parents are indifferent to education.
Bacon’s bottom line: Something is going on, although the Richmond Free Press couldn’t figure out what. As reporter Jeremy Lazarus wrote: “It remains unclear” why Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, submitted the legislation to defang the anti-truancy law, or why the Richmond school board issued not a peep of protest. After all, one out of four Richmond students miss 10 or more days of class each year. About one of three students enrolling in the 9th grade fails to graduate four years later.
What was the reason behind dialing back the anti-truancy law? Was the move motivated by a cynical desire to improve average SOL scores by allowing the weakest students drop out? Did someone determine that the program just wasn’t working as intended? Did it occur to someone that kids who didn’t want to be in school tended not to perform well, and, in fact, tended to disrupt the learning of other students? Now that Richmond is reducing its anti-truancy commitment, can we predict that average SOL scores will improve?
I don’t know the answers. But Richmonders should be thankful that bloggers like John Butcher and feisty independent newspapers like the Richmond Free Press are digging into issues that other media are ignoring.There are currently no comments highlighted.