DC Council, Committee of the Whole – Bill 24-428 School Attendance Amendment Act of 2021 and, more generally Update on Improving School Attendance/Reducing Truancy and Chronic Absenteeism

Nikki D’Angelo

Community Organizer

Education Reform Now DC

Thank you and good afternoon Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee of the Whole. 

My name is Nikki D’Angelo, and I am a Ward 5 resident and DC Public Schools (DCPS) parent. I’ve worked in education in DC for 13 years, initially as an educator and now as a Community Organizer. I am testifying on behalf of Education Reform Now DC (ERN DC). ERN DC is a non-profit organization that fights for a just and equitable public education system for all students in D.C. I am happy to provide testimony about Bill 24-428 School Attendance Amendment Act of 2021, given that I was an attendance coordinator at a high school in DC. 

A few years ago, a high school in DC hired me to organize a team of school staff to address the school’s chronic absenteeism and truancy rates. I worked full-time to design a structure for identifying students that needed support, meeting with parents and the student to develop support plans, and monitoring student progress. I learned a lot about the myriad of barriers that prevent students from arriving to school consistently and on time. Many of those barriers included taking care of siblings, maneuvering and planning for public transportation as a young person, the need for more adult support, the threat of violence walking to and from school, and persistent physical and mental health issues.  Many of my students struggled to get to school on time consistently because they needed more adult support to make what could be a long trek to get to school. Even in high school, we’re still talking about children, with the youngest of this group historically struggling the most in that transition year to high school. This attendance work was some of the most intensive and rewarding student support work I’ve done in my career. This situation raised this question for me: how are we using policy to ensure that schools are poised to best support struggling students to make it to school?

In regards to Bill 24-428 School Attendance Amendment Act of 2021, I have three main points:

  1. Lowering the threshold to 60% is not adequate for addressing our complicated attendance issues. Students need to be in school. The DC Council should be focused on helping kids to school, not seemingly trying to lower the bar we hold our students to. As the policy currently is, many of my students struggled with attending 80% of the school day. However, these struggles existed before a dedicated team was indeed in place. After months of intense work, we made great strides with our students, so I know improvement is possible with a dedicated team. I don’t believe that lowering the bar to 60% communicates that we think our students can rise to a much more adequate percentage of in-seat attendance time. In what school is 60% a passing grade? I can’t imagine that simply requiring fewer in-seat hours solves any environmental or social barriers that keep our students from coming to school consistently and on time. 
  • I agree wholeheartedly that public transportation delays should be a valid excuse for up to 10% of the school day. When I was an attendance coordinator, I certainly knew students who would have benefited from that policy change. 
  • Schools need a dedicated team to support attendance. To ensure students are adequately supported, each school needs to have a group of adults who proactively identify students of concern, work directly with students, families, and other supporting adults to break down attendance barriers, and constantly evaluate programming and attendance data. My former students and families were incredibly grateful for the support my team provided. Additionally, it’s no secret that school staff teams are stretched thin. Many support staff members are pulled in throughout the day to cover classes and fulfill other responsibilities left by daily vacancies. In my experience, this position is a full-time job with no distractions that requires a focused, multi-person team. How can the District provide students with even more adult support around getting to school?

I hope my testimony helped you all think about how to support our students further. Thank you for keeping your attention on this essential matter and allowing me to testify. I welcome any questions you may have.