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Counting All Children: ABA Conference Focuses on Truancy

By Laura Faer and Catherine Krebs – November 12, 2010

In the United States, it costs three times more to imprison someone than to educate them, proving Frederick Douglass’ quote that "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Still, a child drops out of school every 26 seconds. In New York City, only 28 percent of black males will graduate from high school; in Chicago, the statistics are only slightly better with 48 percent graduating.

On Monday, September 20, 2010, in Washington, D.C., judges, lawyers, policymakers, advocates, and education scholars from across the nation gathered at the ABA-sponsored Legal and Educational System Solutions for Youth: A Leadership & Policy Forum on Truancy & Drop Out Prevention. From 1995 to 2007, the number of petitioned truancy cases processed by juvenile courts went up by 67 percent (from 34,100 cases in 1995 to 57,000 cases in 2007). Adams, Benjamin, Charles Puzzanchera & Melissa Sickmund, Juvenile Court Statistics 2006–2007, National Center for Juvenile Justice (March 2010). Likewise, every year from 2000–2007, truancy cases accounted for the largest number of adjudicated status offense cases that resulted in an out-of-home placement—more than ungovernability or runaway cases. Id. at 86. As Judge Judith Kaye, one of the panelists for the opening plenary, stated, “We have a problem, but we also have an opportunity.”

Conference attendees wanted to put a spotlight on truancy and responses to truancy because research has shown that student absences are an early warning sign of academic failure and an accurate predictor of school drop-out or push-out. Research from a nine-city study of excessive absence in early elementary school has shown a strong correlation for later poor achievement and dropping out. Chang, Hedy, & Mariajose Romero, Present, Engaged, & Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in Early Grades, National Center of Children in Poverty, New York, New York (September 2008). In fact, by sixth grade, chronic absence is a clear predictor of drop-out; educators can predict who will drop out 80 percent of the time just by reviewing attendance and course credit data. In Baltimore, Maryland, nearly half of all chronically absent sixth graders during the 2002–2003 school year dropped out of school prior to graduation. By ninth grade, attendance is a more accurate predictor of whether a student will drop out than eighth-grade test scores.

The principal question for conference attendees was, “If we can predict who will drop out at such an early stage, what can we do to stop the epidemic?”

Providing a framework for a solution-oriented discussion, Sue Fothergill, plenary panelist and director of Baltimore City School’s Attendance Counts Initiative, presented some innovative ideas being piloted in Baltimore for district-wide solutions. Setting out a theme that was reinforced throughout the day, Fothergill explained that the school system is now focused on recovery, intervention, and prevention instead of punishment and legal intervention, which have not worked. When they realized that attendance could accurately predict drop-out, education leaders in Baltimore partnered with researchers at Harvard Law School, among others, to study and understand the extent of the problem. They then identified 100 public and private partners to serve on an Attendance Taskforce. Taskforce members quickly focused on prevention and intervention. With such a range of partners at the table, resources could be targeted to address barriers facing families, including instability/mobility, homelessness, lack of transportation, and healthcare.

Fothergill also explained that the school district knew it needed to educate its key stakeholders and create a marketing campaign to illustrate to parents and students the importance of attending school. Finally, the district committed to end its practice of using punitive out-of-school suspensions to punish lack of attendance, and is instead focusing on a problem-solving, data-centered approach.

“Since chronic absence is often a signal of family or community distress, schools should use data on absences to allocate preschool and early resources, and provide free tax preparation and tax credit outreach, and target health, housing, and other resources,” said Fothergill. By way of example, she noted that educators often forget that asthma is the number one medical reason that children are not coming to school. However, once identified, schools can reduce truancy by training staff and obtaining services to address the core medical concerns.

She also shared several of Baltimore’s universal strategies, which are based on proven practices. These include:

  • Effective and engaging instruction.
  • Intentionally inviting family participation from the outset.
  • Building an early-warning system that uses multiple measures of attendance, including suspension.
  • Establishing a school-going culture, but recognizing that the basis of good attendance is having a good school to attend.
  • Following up with parents the same day on every absence and making person-to-person contact.
  • Where absenteeism is high in a particular school, listening to students, parents, and teachers to learn what would help.
  • Utilizing attendance incentives.
  • Individually assessing and providing community supports. This includes creating a service-rich plan for students who have been chronically absent in prior years that includes special activities to increase a feeling of belonging, wraparound services, and case management.
  • For students who are missing a lot of school, increasing interventions. This may include conducting a home visit, assigning a mentor for daily check-in, inviting the family to the school attendance hearing, and, as a last resort, conducting a court-based student attendance hearing, preferably through family court.

As a result of this coordinated and focused campaign, Baltimore City chronic absence and habitual truancy rates are declining, particularly in elementary and middle school.

Fothergill said that Baltimore’s effort to target absences has also extended to suspensions, which are really forced absences of a school-created nature. Baltimore targeted its high suspension rate, recognizing that sending children home just puts them further behind and makes them far more likely to drop out. Fothergill explained that the district sat down with advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and others and took a hard look at the disciplinary code. Removing absences and truancy from the code as suspendable offenses and asking tough questions about the number of young people removed from school for defiant behaviors such as acting out or talking back has dropped Baltimore’s aggregate suspensions from 23,000 to 9,000 in a two-year period. Fothergill highlights that the transformation requires ongoing, persistent monitoring and analysis; a team in Baltimore’s headquarters consistently reviews suspension data on a school-by-school basis and provides additional support and training to schools with disproportionately high numbers of suspensions.

Fothergill shared Baltimore’s policy that in all instances, schools should “offer positive supports to promote school attendance before resorting to punitive responses or legal action.” The theme of punitive discipline or legal remedies as a last resort was echoed by other panelists, who concurred, in spite of the recent trend toward zero-tolerance policies, that withholding learning as a punishment is wrong and ineffective. Dr. Ken Seeley, plenary panelist and moderator, also brought attention to the “Three As”: Attendance, Attachment, and Achievement. He emphasized that truants and dropouts are the same people and that punishment with failing grades or out-of-school removals for the failure to attend is ineffective at changing behavior and addressing the root causes of truancy.

In addition to Baltimore’s approach to reducing out-of-school removals, conference attendees highlighted effective alternatives to suspension that do not force children out of school, including restorative justice and school-wide positive behavior support. These positive approaches provide mechanisms for teaching good behavior and pro-social attitudes and involve parents and students as part of the solution. In Los Angeles, for example, the school district has put in place a school-wide positive behavior support policy that requires that alternatives to suspension be implemented and focuses on positive and pro-social teaching of behavior strategies instead of knee-jerk removals. See, e.g., Redefining Dignity in our Schools: A Shadow Report on School-Wide Positive Behavior Support Implementation in South Los Angeles, 2007-2010. Also see, Model School Code, Dignity in Schools Campaign (offers a framework based on four fundamental human rights: The Right to Education, the Right to Participation, the Right to Dignity, and Freedom from Discrimination).

Another plenary panelist, Dr. John Jackson from the Schott Foundation for Education, discussed the significant disparities in the provision of educational resources for students of color and reminded participants that when we create schools with sufficient resources and high-quality instruction, students will attend. He emphasized that the first priority should be realigning resources and funding to target students in schools that lack sufficient, high-quality resources and teachers. He focused on what many researchers have called the “push-out” factors: structural and procedural policies and practices in schools that force high-risk youth out, including zero-tolerance discipline policies, poor-quality schools and instruction, and a lack of resources to address health and mental-health issues. Rumberger, Russell, & Sun Ah Lim, Why Students Drop Out of School: A Review of 25 Years of Research, California Dropout Research Project, Policy Brief 15 (Oct. 2008).

Building on this critical piece, a number of attendees talked about the need to create an Opportunity to Learn funding system, which provides extra funding on a per-pupil basis to schools who serve children with greater needs. Dr. Jackson also highlighted New Jersey, where the longstanding Abbott Consent Decree, which requires high levels of funding for schools and funding on an equitable basis, has resulted in a 65 percent African-American graduation rate—the highest in the nation. Reinforcing Baltimore’s model, which includes an individual planning and team approach for chronically truant students, Dr. Jackson proposed that children who are disengaging from school need a student recovery plan that includes academic support and mentoring, as well as nonacademic supports such as health interventions for identified barriers to attending school.

Recent participants in the City Year program, which recruits young people into providing a year of paid service, is deploying more than 350 corps members to Washington public schools in the next five years to help schools focus on children who are at risk of dropping out. Two corps members shared their strategies for reengaging students who are not attending regularly, including developing a personal relationship with students, listening to students, calling home when students are absent, and working one-on-one with families to address barriers to attendance, such as a sick parent, transportation issues, or unemployment.

One of the most marginalized populations, students returning from the juvenile delinquency system, requires a targeted approach, particularly because many schools unlawfully refuse to immediately enroll them. Participants discussed best practices, including funding transition centers that have resources and an advocate or attorney to ensure young people are immediately reenrolled and in a placement where they will succeed. They also highlighted the Maya Angelou School in Washington as a school that is effectively serving children who have not received necessary help in traditional school settings. (“Youth with learning disabilities or an emotional disturbance are arrested at higher rates than their non-disabled peers and studies of incarcerated youth reveal that as many as 70 percent suffer from disabling conditions.” Burrell, Sue, and Loren Warboys, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Special Education and the Juvenile Justice System, Juvenile Justice Bulletin (July 2000).

A theme echoed throughout the day was that we need a drastically different and innovative approach to solve this problem. Among other things, participants acknowledged that the incentive system for schools is flawed. Schools win the most points under No Child Left Behind and other state accountability programs for high test scores and receive little to no credit or incentives for helping struggling or truant students.

Ryan Reyna from the National Governor’s Association highlighted Oregon as an alternative model. The state pays school districts to reengage truant youth. Similarly, in Colorado, the state has created a “reengagement rate,” giving funding related points to schools that effectively bring students back to school. Another solution—stop funding schools based on a one-day count of attendance, which gives no incentive to keep kids in school after “norm day.” Participants and panelists agreed that a daily attendance and funding model would encourage schools to focus efforts on keeping students in the classroom.

Although attendance troubles do not generally become pronounced until later grades, panelists also highlighted that early education is proven to help ensure that students enter school prepared to learn and is one of the biggest indicators of school success.

Noting that we spend three times more on prisons than on education, Judge Kaye called upon researchers in the audience to develop a method to quantify the cost of truancy to the nation. She and others noted that in Missouri, judges are now provided with the actual cost of a particular sentence to the state prior to imposing it. The cost analysis highlights a great imbalance—too much of a focus on punishment and not enough on prevention. To push our legislatures to target resources at the problem, Judge Kaye noted that an economic study of this type can be persuasive, even in a society that does not appropriately value prevention. She noted that “government, by design, responds to immediate problems rather than preventing them. Illustrating the cost of ignoring prevention might be helpful in changing perspectives.”

Overall, panelists and participants agreed that we cannot silo the many issues that keep our children from attending schools and that a network of coordinated systems is needed to keep children engaged and attending.

We Know We Have a Problem. Where Do We Go Now?
In the afternoon, conference attendees broke into planning groups to brainstorm around legal, policy, funding, and court-related solutions. The ABA Commission on Youth at Risk is putting together a report from the forum and, once it’s published, may draft a new policy resolution for the 2011 ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto. There were four breakout sessions.

The Youth and Caregiver Intervention Program breakout session laid out some fundamentals for a truancy and drop-out intervention program.

These included parent education and engagement, including:

  • A challenge to states to implement the parent-involvement compacts in No Child Left Behind and make schools more welcoming to parents;
  • Community buy-in campaigns targeted at educating parents on the importance of school and attendance;
  • Consistently monitoring and analyzing attendance trends and changing policies to respond to the need;
  • Using restorative justice and positive behavior intervention practices to keep students who are struggling in the classroom; and
  • The court system should be a last resort, and judges should deny petitions where it is clear that the school system has not made sufficient efforts to resolve the problem before engaging the justice system. Finally, rethink court involvement as a voluntary participation program and use best practices to help connect families with resources.

The second breakout session focused on the role of schools, courts, and the community in intervention and the prevention of chronic absenteeism among the nation’s youth. The breakout group had a lively and productive seminar, which led to the group’s finding of a three-pronged approach to solving the truancy epidemic. This approach could be called the “Three Rs”: Report, Response, and Redirect.

First, there needs to be periodic auditing of attendance and exclusion practices. Second there needs to be a service-based approach to chronic absenteeism and individualized case management for children and their families. The backdrop behind this prong involves the need for an early-warning system for children in kindergarten through the fifth grade and a retrieval process to assist sixth through twelfth graders, which would identify the factors contributing to chronic absenteeism. This prong necessitates an intrasystem program, which would help identify at-risk and truant youth, and provide a multitude of services through one linking and functional agency. These services would include legal assistance by attorneys, guidance from the courts, and community programs that will diminish the risk of truancy among youth. Lastly, youth should be provided with the skills necessary for implementing schools’ and students’ best practices through peer mentorship programs, civic engagement, negotiated rule-making, and positive sanctions, all as modeled in the nation’s youth courts. The overall concern is that the system is “punishing youth that have already had punishing lives.” We want to encourage children to stay in school and succeed, and our policies need not prevent them from accomplishing this.

The Laws, Policy, and Practice Strategies Section breakout session looked at the key statutory changes necessary to promote best-practice intervention/prevention programs and recommended that statutory requirements include compulsory attendance age requirements from 5 to 18 years old; better definitions and accounting measures; the identification of new metrics for assessing success (not just looking at math and science scores, but suspension, truancy, and drop-out rates as well); and incentives for schools to continue to educate and engage at-risk populations. The group recommended that core elements of successful intervention programs include evaluation (collecting data and analyzing it to understand program efficacy); communication/education; intervention/prevention recovery; and individualized assessments. To encourage prevention practices in schools, principals need to be supportive of prevention to create a culture/climate from the top down. Additionally, schools should be connected to law firms/corporations and other private community partners to motivate kids for future careers. Lastly, a collateral consequences paper needs to be created for truancy.

The Data Evaluation, Program Funding and Sustainability Strategies breakout session focused on the collection and use of data around these issues. The group recommended uniform definitions of terms like truancy and suspension. Additionally, funding needs to be tied to attendance data so that schools value attendance. Having money follow the student and creating incentive programs tied to attendance place more accountability on the schools and may help them focus on attendance. Also, more flexibility in funding is required to truly maximize limited resources. Truancy data needs to be publicized to engage teachers and the public on this issue. More research needs to be done on what works in truancy intervention and prevention and on what is currently being done in schools. Importantly, the group noted that evidence-based research needs to be done correctly.

More information on the Legal and Educational System Solutions for Youth: A Leadership & Policy Forum on Truancy & Drop Out Prevention will be available once The ABA Commission on Youth at Risk completes its report from the forum. The Children’s Rights Litigation Committee will post a link to that report from its webpage once the report is complete.

To get involved in dropout/pushout issues, please contact the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee to join our education subcommittee.

Laura Faer is the directing attorney of the Children's Rights Project with Public Counsel Law Center. Catherine Krebs is the committee director of the Children's Rights Litigation Committee.

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