Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. My name is Rachel Johnston, a proud Ward 5 resident and the Senior Director of Operations and School Support for the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates for the 46,000 public charter school students in the District.
Our priority is ensuring students are in class as much as possible. We know that academic proficiency is linked to attendance, and missing valuable class time impacts a student’s long-term success. We’re grateful to the Council for prioritizing student attendance and drawing attention to barriers in our city that make consistent attendance a challenge. We’re also appreciative of the State Board of Education’s new “60/40” attendance regulation and the shift toward incentivizing students to come to school even if they miss part of the day. Chronic absenteeism surged during the pandemic, and we know from national data that our city isn’t alone with addressing this issue. Preliminarily, we understand that attendance rates are up this year over last year, but haven’t yet rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
How DC Charter Schools are Responding
The pandemic created barriers to maintaining relationships with families because engaging them regularly became more difficult. For many students and their families, it’s not as simple as not wanting to attend. There may be other circumstances keeping them from school.
Prior to joining the DC Alliance team, I worked at Kingsman Academy, a public charter school in Ward 6 specifically designed to support students who are at-risk of dropping out of high school because they are over-age and under-credited, have attendance problems, or have behavioral or emotional challenges. What I learned working at Kingsman Academy is that punitive measures rarely work because absenteeism is often an expression of an unmet need on behalf of the student and their family. That’s why our schools are focusing on building and fostering trusting relationships through consistent communication with students and their families to surface those needs and identify solutions.
As our city finds a new “normal”, school leaders are putting more staff on home visits and follow up phone calls to students and their families. In those conversations, they are learning about factors preventing students from more regular attendance, including unmet mental health needs and challenges accessing safe and efficient transportation.
Schools are finding creative ways to address problems caregivers and students are facing. Some are operating vans or contracting with ride-share organizations to make it easier for students to get to and from school. Others have positive incentives – like prizes and gift cards – for students with high attendance. Several operate food and clothing pantries, and provide diapers and other household goods to ensure students and families’ basic needs are met so they can focus on school. Many have hired more coaches, counselors, and advocates to support students’ unique needs and address barriers to attendance. One school noticed that their students’ disconnection to school was a result of inconsistent access to a working phone, so they invested in cellphone lines for their students. These kinds of flexible interventions are immensely effective but are also staff and cost intensive. To afford them, schools must make tough decisions to prioritize them over other recovery initiatives.
First, as we all work together to address the root causes of truancy, it’s clear through conversations with school leaders and through my time at Kingsman Academy that family engagement is key to better attendance. Our schools need more resources to accelerate this work. We know that relationship building with families is key, but it takes significant staffing resources to do this well. With widespread recruitment challenges resulting in many vacancies, school staff are stretched thin, making it difficult for them to engage as deeply with students and families as they would like to. Schools that were able to hire additional staff will face a budget challenge with funding these roles after pandemic federal funds expire. We hope to work with the Council and Mayor in the coming budget cycle to ensure schools have sufficient resources to continue staffing these critical roles.
Second, schools need more support to meet students’ mental health needs. This includes access to more high-quality clinicians. Schools have struggled to hire and retain clinicians and there are numerous vacancies across DBH’s school-based behavioral health program right now. To support the goals of the DBH program and the priorities of the Strengthening Families Coalition, we advocate for innovative recruitment strategies, such as those outlined in the Pathways to Behavioral Health Degrees Act of 2022 (B24-1019).
And finally, we need to think boldly about innovative solutions that provide reliable and safe transportation for students. While Kids Ride Free helps some families get to and from school easily, it does not work as a one-size fits all solution. Unfortunately, many students and families, especially for those living in Wards 7 and 8, cannot easily access public transit. Because car ownership is low in these neighborhoods, many students must take multiple forms of transportation to get to and from school, which can take hours. (1) For those who can take public transit, schedule inconsistencies make it challenging to get to school on-time.
That’s why we advocate for DC to establish a set of transportation grants, similar to Arizona’s Transportation Modernization Grants Program administered by A for Arizona. Grants could be offered to non-profits, schools and government agencies to create a more flexible, collaborative transportation system that is more inclusive of all public school models and student needs. One example of how these grants could be used is investing in safe and cost efficient ride share programs, which offer a more equitable and accessible mode of transportation to students in Wards 7 and 8.
Student attendance challenges are serious, and our school leaders care deeply about solving them. You’ll hear from many of them today sharing innovative examples of how they are creatively taking on this challenge. The DC Alliance and the public charter school community are ready to think creatively and partner with you on ways we can support students, so they can actively and consistently engage in school.
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.
(1) The Road to School (2018)