Education Reform Now DC
Good afternoon Chairman Mendelson, Councilmembers, and staff of the Committee of the Whole. My name is Minetre Martin. I am a ward four resident, former classroom teacher, and a Community Organizer for Education Reform Now DC. (“ERN DC”). ERN D.C. is a non-profit organization fighting for a just and equitable public education system for all students.
Recent attendance data has shown an increase in chronic absenteeism since the pandemic. Though the increase was primarily due to excused absences related to Covid, areas that were present pre-pandemic still persist. For example, middle school students, high school students, students designated as at-risk, and students of color still show high rates of chronic absenteeism. Additionally, the Office of State Superintendent’s (OSSE) teacher and principal retention report highlights the correlation between school leadership and student attendance.
These reports are devastating and based on conversations with parents, students, and community advocates, I can attest to the impact of this data. In my previous testimony, I recounted the story of one parent who was reported to (CFSA) the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) after a substitute teacher confused their child with another student. Additionally, a second parent disclosed to me the trauma their child experienced around attendance after being attacked by a group of students, first on school grounds and later after being followed to their residence. A third parent reported that their child was terrified of the behaviors of students experiencing mental health issues. In a more recent conversation, a student at a public school in D.C. affirmed that the school environment, mental health issues, the absence of teachers, and students’ behavior make getting up for school more difficult. Attendance advocates also pointed out the lack of resource allocation for 7th and 8th grade students and families, which has often resulted in students dropping out by 9th grade. None of these stories are okay. We all have a duty to be relentless in maintaining families’ trust and that includes keeping students safe and in school.
How are we addressing this data?
As a community, under the guidance of the Deputy Mayor or Education (DM), OSSE, and the State Board of Education (SBOE), and partner programs, we have worked to shift from the “80/20 rule” to the “60/40 rule,”, improved safe passage for students, fund programs to provide technology that nudges schools and parents about their child’s attendance, and more. But we must not stop there. We must ask: How can we make school more meaningful for students? We offer one overarching solution and four ways to achieve that goal.
Reimagine how we make school more joyful and meaningful for students
Recently, two 8th-grade students, an attendance counselor, and a community partner coordinator were individually interviewed by me about attendance. One student had nearly perfect attendance while the other student’s attendance was unsatisfactory prior to this school year. When asked what the one thing that motivated them to attend school was, they both stated “knowing the importance of education and the role it plays in my future.” Additionally, both adults said their most effective conversations were about why school attendance was important for the students’ future.
Based on students, parents, and educators, we believe that helping students comprehend the significance of education in their life is the first step to making school more joyful and meaningful.
Achieving the Goal
- Continuing to aggressively invest in safe passage and other safety efforts
On Tuesday, November 28, 2022, Jakhi Snider became the 18th person under 18 to be shot and killed in D.C. this year. Additionally, since 2020, the number of youth suffering from car incidents have increased as well. We can no longer wait for another child to die while waiting for the D.C. Council to take action. The time is now, and we strongly urge you all to take aggressive action towards investing in safe passage effort. A good first step would be to approve amendments to the Safe Routes to School Act.
- Address the mental health crisis
Investment in the Behavioral Health’s school-based behavioral health program (SBBH) is as important as ever, as the behavioral health crisis our children are experiencing continues to grow. In D.C., the rates of children and teens with anxiety or depression in 2020 were the highest in the previous five years of data (11.7% children). Among D.C. high schoolers, 17% reported a suicide attempt, compared to about 7.4% nationally. As of 2020, 48.7% of D.C. youth with Major Depressive Disorder (MDE) did not receive mental health services.
To increase attendance rates, we must prioritize students’ mental health challenges and social and emotional needs. With investments that raise the at-risk weight of the uniform per student funding formula, schools are better situated to provide critical services that increase their capacity for supporting students with chronic absenteeism. To ensure every school has a clinician, the D.C. Council should continue to invest in the SBBH program to:
- Build a pipeline of mental health providers.
- Maintain stable funding for SBBH, including robust grants to Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) – adjusted for inflation – so that every school has a clinician;
- Expand information-sharing and family engagement efforts by directing DC education agencies and LEAs to make the implementation of SBBH a top priority and providing any necessary resources; and
- Ensure inclusive and actionable data collection and program evaluation by providing the resources needed to bring all stakeholders into these processes.
- Take advantage of the multimillion-dollar investment from XQ-DC Institute to reimagine high school and to help improve attendance
In SY 23-24, XQ-DC will be partnering with two schools in D.C. to help them dream big about what high school could be, turn their innovative ideas into action, and create a more rigorous and equitable school. It would be unfortunate if we didn’t take advantage of this opportunity to prioritize what attendance could look like at all schools in the District. XQ mentions in a number of articles that school attendance has been a major factor in remaining high school. We highly recommend Chancellor Ferebee use this opportunity to ensure that our two pilot schools prioritize improving attendance in their plans.
- Consider incentivizing 7th and 8th students financially for attending class and doing well in school.
Education is the primary work of young people. DC has tried many strategies to increase school attendance, but incentivizing students had not been considered as a quality solution.
In 2008, D.C. paid 6th-8th grade students for a combination of attendance, behavior, and academics through private funding via participation in a study from Allan and Fryer (2011). The intervention distributed $3.8M in D.C., paying students up to $100 every two weeks, or up to $1500 for the year. While the intervention in D.C. was not associated with statistically significant gains on the state assessment, it was successful in getting students to school. After many disruptions in school, D.C. may want to explore incentivizing students and families in DC in raising attendance at a critical time of year.
While there are several ways we can continue to improve attendance, we believe that reimagining how to make school more meaningful again will move us all closer to closing the attendance, and eventually the opportunity gap.
My previous testimony related to school attendance can be found here. Thank you for your time and consideration.