Tackling chronic absenteeism in Baltimore schools

March 31, 2011

We were very pleased to read about the Baltimore City Public Schools' well-deserved national recognition as "revitalized" and on "an upward trajectory" in "Baltimore's graduation rate: a success story still being written" (March 28). As the article makes clear, the Baltimore City Public Schools, under the leadership of CEO Andrés Alonso, have gone to extraordinary lengths to improve the quality of education, increase graduation rates, reduce expulsions and suspensions and develop robust partnerships with foundations, community organizations and other stakeholders.

As the authors correctly point out, there is still substantial work to be done. Their recommendations — expedite statewide early intervention systems that keep students in school and combat chronic absenteeism — point to some of the most glaring needs in the Baltimore City Public Schools today. While gains have been made in reducing school absences, Baltimore City continues to suffer from rampant truancy and chronic absenteeism. Last year alone, according to the 2010 Maryland Report Card, 13.9 percent of elementary school students, 17.5 percent of middle school students, and 41.9 percent of high school students missed more than 20 days of school.

Without significant improvement in school attendance, all of our hard-earned achievement is diminished. What can we do to address this crisis? First and foremost, we must develop and implement a continuum of interventions that position schools to become involved the first time a child misses school without an excuse and that continues to intercede in those cases where children miss school for weeks, months and even years.

Second, we need to engage or re-engage parents and other family members with their schools. Their active involvement and support is often enough to transform a child from an absent student to one who is an eager participant in his or her school and community.

Third, we must do a better job of providing our teachers and administrators with the resources and training necessary to identify why a child is missing school and to determine what needs to happen in order to bring him or her back to school — every day and on time.

We are gratified that the University of Baltimore School of Law Center for Families, Children and the Courts Truancy Court Program and stakeholder meetings we have convened have played a part in the reforms underway in the Baltimore City Public Schools. Our approach is based on the belief that we can be most effective through early, non-adversarial and incentive-based interventions into the lives of truant children and their families.

We have seen the miracles that can result from taking an interest in a child's life, listening closely to him or her, and developing a collaborative solution to the problems that so often underlie truant behavior. As we work together to achieve the national goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, we look forward to strengthening existing partnerships and forging new ones. This collaboration can ensure that every child in Baltimore City attends school regularly, graduates, and becomes a productive member of our society.

Barbara A. Babb and Gloria Danziger, Baltimore

Ms. Babb is an associate professor of law and director of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Ms. Danziger is a senior fellow at the center.

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