We at CFCC believe strongly in the importance of studying social issues, like truancy and dropout, to determine risk factors and address problems at their root causes, thereby preventing them from escalating and potentially destroying lives. In fact, one of the reasons for our starting the Truancy Court Program (TCP) is the research that shows that truancy is a predictor of a number of social problems, from delinquency to dropout to teenage pregnancy.
The Baltimore Education Research Coalition (BERC) recently published a report about early warning indicators of dropout in Baltimore City Schools that highlights the importance of holistic, early intervention approaches such as the TCP in order to prevent dropout and improve our city’s dismal graduation rates. The researchers studied the cohort of students who were set to graduate citywide in 2007 and identified indicators from sixth grade (school year 2000-2001) that were strong predictors of future non-graduation. They were able to identify four sixth grade indicators that accounted for over two-thirds of the city’s non-graduates, and all four of them are issues that the TCP encounters on a regular basis.
Not surprisingly, chronic truancy was the most prevalent predictor of non-graduation, but the BERC results reflected a deeper truth: truancy often interacted with other risk factors to seal a student’s fate. The BERC study focused on absenteeism, not tardiness, when analyzing truancy. It categorized students based on sixth grade figures. The findings made clear the importance of middle school attendance. Seventy percent of city students who missed less than 10 days of school in sixth grade went on to graduate. In comparison, only 51.4% of students who missed 10-20 days during sixth grade graduated within one year of their expected graduation date. This was a huge drop, and it still did not include those student defined as “chronic truants.” For the chronic truants (those who missed twenty or more days in sixth grade), their eventual graduation rate was even dimmer – 28.6% of the students graduated within a year of their expected graduation date.
The other three predictors for dropout identified by the study were being over-age for the grade, failing core classes, and having multiple suspensions. The researchers noted that these predictors interacted for many students, and the more sixth grade predictors one applied to a student, the less likely it was that he or she would graduate. To illustrate, over one-third of students who were chronically absent in sixth grade also had failed a core course. For students like those, with two or more indicators, only 20.4% went on to graduate. Most devastating of all was the combination of chronic absence and being over-age for grade – only about one in ten of those sixth graders went on to graduate.
The challenge, then, calls for a multifaceted, holistic approach to truancy that addresses all of these factors so that we can provide the education that Maryland’s Constitution promises to our children and can lead them toward graduation.
Working with the TCP, we have seen how these factors interrelate. We have seen students who are failing their classes because they do not attend school enough to keep up with their work. We have seen the flip-side as well. For example, many of our students who struggle academically find school to be a challenging, unpleasant place and choose to avoid it, thereby causing the attendance problem.We also regularly see students who are over-age for their grade. Some of them are held back because of poor attendance, while others are less connected to their school (and attend less) because they do not feel that they are among their peers. There are similar relationships between school discipline and suspensions. That is why we rarely limit our TCP conversations to attendance. We provide our TCP judges with a weekly portfolio of information about our students, and it is much more than just excuse notes and attendance records. We use a combination of behavior and academics reports from teachers, discipline reports from the front office, and the physical presence of administrators and school social workers at the TCP table who can shed light on the distinct and yet related issues that define each child’s academic life. We also couple the meeting with the judge with a mentoring component and offer volunteer tutoring and mentoring services when possible.
The principal at Hampden Elementary/Middle, a Baltimore City TCP school, noted just this week that she had looked through the report cards for the Fall TCP students who had completed the program. Every single report card she saw showed some academic improvement during and immediately after the student’s involvement with the TCP. Although this is a laudable end in itself, we know that this kind of improvement is linked closely to improving the attendance we target. That is why we believe that attendance-only approaches, such as robocalls, text messages, and media campaigns, are not enough to keep our children in school. They are an excellent start, but we need to do so much more. We need to include holistic, preventive interventions directed to the children who need them, that get to the root of the four indicators, and that provide supports.
Based on the BERC report findings, the majority of the students who fit the criteria to be enrolled in the TCP are not on track to graduate when we meet them. Many of these students are crying for help, dealing with problems and situations that they should not be concerned with and cannot handle on their own. We need more programs like the TCP that can reach them. We are glad that we seem to be making a difference, but we are concerned that the TCP is currently only operating in fourteen Maryland schools. There are hundreds of other schools in this state alone with a real attendance problem but without any interventions at all to address truancy and the other indicators in the BERC study. We as a society need to come together and prioritize targeted, preventive, holistic interventions if we hope to compete globally and, more importantly, to do right by our children.