Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is showing up. But chronically absent kids don’t seem to agree. Now some local schools are taking a more holistic approach to combating chronic truancy, which includes more home visits, phone calls and targeted classes to teach parents how to deal with children skipping school.


  • Kavitha Cardoza Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News

Share Your Stories With The Kojo Nnamdi Show

We want to learn more about issues facing parents of children in the Washington region. If you’re the parent or guardian of school-aged kids, share your stories with us about your experience with local school districts. We’re particularly interested in how you’ve dealt with the annual out-of-boundary admissions process.

Audio Slideshow:Riding Along With A DCPS Attendance Counselor


  • 13:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast major cities suffering setbacks because airlines aren't flying into them as frequently as they used to, but first skipping school, playing hooky or as we called it my native Guyana, skulking.

  • 13:07:15

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a good bet ever since America first mandated compulsory public education some kids have bucked the trend and not attended school regularly, too often in some jurisdictions these days. The frequency with which kids skip school is growing. And while some parents are shocked to hear their child isn't in school in some instances other parents are their children's co-collaborators, not taking the commitment to schooling seriously enough to worry about unexcused absences.

  • 13:07:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn the districts official school reports say 20 percent of all DCPS students missed at least 15 days of school this past year without prior approval or a parental excuse. That number is startling enough, one in five. But even more startling if you narrow it down to just 9th graders, the percentage jumps to 40 percent.

  • 13:08:06

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio now is Kavitha Cardoza. She's WAMU 88.5's education reporter. Kavitha, good to see you, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:16

    MS. KAVITHA CARDOZAThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:08:17

    NNAMDIThis year you've been working on a series focused on high school dropouts, that is you're hoping to highlight ways and improve rates of high school graduation in our region. If I remember correctly I think one of your earlier reports pointed out why 9th grade is a crucial time for understanding when and why students drop out. Why is that?

  • 13:08:42

    CARDOZAI think that the biggest reason is that the transition from middle school to high school seems to be really challenging. It's also a time when kids are given much more independence so teachers are not on top of them as much. Parents are not on top of them. This is their time to kind of grow more independent so they have choices often. Sometimes they're driving so they can decide if they're going to stop at the school gates or just keep on going.

  • 13:09:08

    NNAMDII remember well at that age in my life precisely that was the time when I started thinking about, oh, maybe I could go to the movies this afternoon instead of going to school.

  • 13:09:15

    CARDOZAYou could, whereas when you're younger, you know, there isn't that possibility often.

  • 13:09:23

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. What do you see as the proper role for a school when the parent doesn't seem to care if his or her child attends school or not? 800-433-8850 or you can send us email to kojo@wamu.org or simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. So what exactly does the 40 percent truancy rate in 9th grade mean? And what are the punishments DCPS tries to enforce against truant kids?

  • 13:09:57

    CARDOZAThe bottom line Kojo, is that students are not learning. If they're not in school they're not learning. School districts have been criticized in the past because one of the, the kind of punishment was they would suspend kids who were truant which kind of made no sense. So DCPS doesn't do that. What they do is they've tried to kind of reach out to parents and bring these students back because often the parents don't know.

  • 13:10:22

    CARDOZASo they try home visits. They try home calls, robo-calls, text messages. They've given students alarm clocks in some cases, you know, a variety of methods to get these kids to feel like we care about you, come back to school.

  • 13:10:37

    NNAMDIAnd one of the things they do, of course, is the ongoing use of truancy officers. You went for a ride-along with a school truancy officer. Well, let's take a listen.

  • 13:10:48

    CARDOZAStephen Liggon's first stop is at the house of a student named Courtney. She has just half a credit left to graduate and has missed at least 25 days so far. She isn't home. At the next house, an exhausted mother says she'll tell her son Nathaniel he needs to go to school whenever he comes home next. At the third house, Liggon has more luck. William Ford has missed ten days of school and his father Bill, who is just back from work, is home.

  • 13:11:18

    CARDOZAWilliam comes down the stairs sleepy-eyed.

  • 13:11:23

    MR. BILL FORDSee, if you don't go to school, the school will come to you.

  • 13:11:25

    MR. STEPHEN LIGGONWell, look, he started going in October, on October 27th, 28th, 31st, November 1st, 3rd...

  • 13:11:31

    CARDOZAWilliam looked shocked.

  • 13:11:31

    LIGGON...28th, 29th. January...

  • 13:11:36

    MR. WILLIAM FORDAm I the person that missed the most? I know I don't -- I missed the most...

  • 13:11:39

    FORDHold on, hold on, I know you didn't ask me that...

  • 13:11:40

    CARDOZAFord says he had no idea his son was truant.

  • 13:11:42

    FORDWell, how does this affect his graduation?

  • 13:11:46

    LIGGONOkay, this is the deal...

  • 13:11:46

    FORDHe said he made the honor roll.

  • 13:11:49

    LIGGONAll that can be changed. If a child misses ten days of school, he fails the class, 15 days he can go to court, 20 days fail the whole school year.

  • 13:11:57

    CARDOZANow it's Bill Ford's turn to look shocked, but he shakes Liggon's hand and promises to be more involved.

  • 13:12:05

    FORDI'm glad you all are here. I really am glad you're here.

  • 13:12:08

    CARDOZAWilliam slumps.

  • 13:12:10

    FORDThis is the worst day ever.

  • 13:12:13

    NNAMDIIs this a normal day for Stephen Liggon?

  • 13:12:15

    CARDOZAVery normal, before we stopped at that house, Kojo, the first two houses, one parent was not home and in the second home, there was a mother who looked exhausted and she said, I'll tell my son he needs to go to school when he comes home next.

  • 13:12:31

    NNAMDII'll tell my son he needs to go to school when he comes home next?

  • 13:12:36

    CARDOZAHome next.

  • 13:12:36

    NNAMDISo she has no idea. How many visits, on an average, over the course of a year or so does a truancy officer like Stephen Liggon do?

  • 13:12:44

    CARDOZAHe goes on more visits than there are students. There are about 250 students in his school and he goes on about 300 a year. That day, Kojo, he had a list of 21 students. During the Christmas break and the spring break, he has 60 to 70 because that's when he is sure to find someone at home. So it's an incredibly challenging uphill climb for him.

  • 13:13:08

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, we're talking with Kavitha Cardoza. She's WAMU 88.5's education reporter about school truancy and its relationship to school dropout rates. 800-433-8850 do you have a specific suggestion about how to lower rates of unexcused absences. You can call us now. We can sure use it, 800-433-8850.

  • 13:13:33

    NNAMDIOne thing you learn, Kavitha, you cannot broad-brush this conversation. There are many different reasons. Some kids skip school and some are more legitimate, if you will, than others. Tell us about some of the situations you observed while on your ride-along.

  • 13:13:47

    CARDOZAYou know, like you said, there were a variety so for some, Kojo, it was something like, oh, I stayed home to look after my younger siblings. They didn't have anyone. For some it was, I stayed home to get my hair braided. For some, well, with parents, some of them feel like there's no point in their kids going to school. They didn't go to school. It's more important that their kids get a job.

  • 13:14:15

    CARDOZAThere was a case where DC is actually targeting 50 of the children most truant and this pair of sisters, they were alternating staying at home so that they could look after their mother who was unwell.

  • 13:14:32

    NNAMDIWell, that's not a usual situation, though, is it? That's not the situation you encounter most frequently...

  • 13:14:37


  • 13:14:37

    NNAMDI...where these two sisters were staying home to take care of a sick relative?

  • 13:14:39

    CARDOZANo, a lot of time it's, I mean, you know, over here we've been talking about the responsibility of schools and parents and I don't want to diminish the responsibility of the children themselves. I mean, they don't see the point. They would rather be out, you know. So, yeah, there are probably as many reasons as there are children.

  • 13:15:00

    NNAMDII don't want to get on a soapbox about this, but it has always been my belief that most of the social problems that are encountered in inner cities could be solved if we could just figure out a way how to have children stay in school and how to have them not be truant. And School Superintendant or Schools Chancellor in the District of Columbia Kaya Henderson is one of the people featured in your report and she talked about the difficulty it is for schools to be able to do that.

  • 13:15:27

    MS. KAYA HENDERSONIf you look at excused absences, there's just not enough in-seat attendance in order to do the job that we are charged to do.

  • 13:15:37

    CARDOZASo, for example, Kojo, the 20 percent and the 40 percent stats we were talking about, those are unexcused absences. Excused absences, for example, she said a doctor's appointment. You can schedule a doctor's appointment before school or after school, so she says that there's a value disconnect between populations in the community that value education and their default is not, my child needs to be in school.

  • 13:16:02

    NNAMDISo that you have a lot of parents who feel that they did not have an experience that they would consider a positive experience with education and that in a way is passed along to their children.

  • 13:16:14


  • 13:16:15

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones, now here is Dee in Washington, D.C. Dee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:16:22

    DEEYes, good afternoon. I'm going to be returning to the classroom in the fall in (word?) ES and one thing I cannot understand in some smaller school districts, they actually have a GPS form where the students are tracked that way and parents are required to check in daily by computer. And so the school knows right away if the parent has some cognizance of their child's whereabouts and they just do an attendance and they can have that information back to the superintendent within two days.

  • 13:17:06

    DEEI think that the parents are very hip to the game that teachers and administrators are outmanned and they sort of push the responsibility on to the school district. They're thinking that you're responsible for their child from 7:30 until they return back home in the evening. So if we don't bridge the partnership, I don't see how we're going to get around it.

  • 13:17:33

    NNAMDIDee, you said you would be returning to DC public schools, I presume, in the fall?

  • 13:17:39

    DEEYes, I will be.

  • 13:17:42

    NNAMDIWhat was your experience with truancy like before?

  • 13:17:45

    DEEIt was ridiculous. I had to make a lot of home visits. I visited many Baptist and Pentecostal churches throughout the city. We have to have a parent/teacher conference wherever you can get (word?). I had some very bright students, but they just had some competing interests with getting into school.

  • 13:18:10

    NNAMDIDee, thank you very much for sharing that experience with us, Kavitha, your report says some schools are holding classes for parents, trying to make them understand the importance of sending kids to school and I want to say how are those working? But in your report, I found out that someone just like Dee went around to parents' homes, gave them handbills did all kinds of things and only ten out of 494 parents showed up.

  • 13:18:34

    CARDOZAYes, made phone calls, walked the streets, knocked on doors, flyers, you name it and you could just see that school's counselor like so exhausted and demoralized when. She said ten and then she said I may be hiking that number up a bit.

  • 13:18:50

    NNAMDIOh, out of 494? Here's Mike in Washington, D.C. Mike, your turn.

  • 13:18:56

    MIKEHi, Kojo, thank you for having me on the show. I just wanted to add that I believe a carrot approach is much better than a stick approach. I dropped out of high school when I was in the 11th grade. Things were going pretty well at the time, but I dropped out. Later on, I went back to school and now I have a PhD. I have three sons. I got the older two through college and then the youngest one, he's in college now.

  • 13:19:22

    MIKEBut what I really believe is that children sometimes come up with a whole bunch of rationalized reasons. I know, in my case, I felt that I was very fearful of my parents, if they had known that I was not going to school -- you know, I spent more than 25 days out of school. And at that time, parents weren't being notified. But in spite of that, there was nothing my parents could do to make me go to school. And I would have gotten a whipping by both of them at that time, but had I been more connected with the carrot approach, I think, that I would not have felt so irrational...

  • 13:19:51

    NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, Mike, because that gives me the opportunity to ask Kavitha about Kaya Henderson's statement that if she had the Benjamins, she said, she would expand the capital gains program. Could you explain what that is, please?

  • 13:20:06

    CARDOZAThe capital gains program was a pilot project started by a Harvard professor with private fund funding to pay children, if they did well in school, if they came to school and the results were kind of mixed. It showed some gains, like, some success with African-American boys in a middle school. And she said that there are so many competing interests, this is one way to reward kids because, she said, DCPS has rethought their approach where they're trying to make it so kids want to come to school instead of, as the caller said, a punitive approach. She said, when she was actually very little, at the pediatricians office, he would give her $5 for every A she brought in. And she said I didn't get an A for the $5, but when I did, it was a really lovely reward.

  • 13:20:56

    NNAMDIMotivating Kaya. Here now is Ryan in Tacoma Park, Md. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:21:06

    RYANHi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say, first, that my wife is a teacher in Frederick County, Md. and encounters a lot of these same problems with kids not showing up to school. And what she says about parent/teacher conferences is that the parents that show up are the ones that you don't actually need to see. They're the kids that actually are getting good grades, that show up every day. And my question, basically, is I wonder how come they don't -- unless the kids have been emancipated from their parents or they're at an age of majority, I wonder why don't they hold the parents responsible since they are the adult? And I understand it's a difficult situation.

  • 13:21:46

    NNAMDIWell, no. Ryan, it's one thing holding parents responsible, but what do you do about holding parents responsible? What would you suggest?

  • 13:21:54

    RYANI would suggest hefty fines. I've heard on NPR about how in some cities, they are fining the children and I'm wondering why they don't -- it could be a source of revenue for the city. You know, they're always looking for ways to make money. Maybe instead of the parking meters, they should look at fining the parents for the kids that don't go to school.

  • 13:22:09

    NNAMDII don't know, Kavitha Cardoza, how does that work?

  • 13:22:12

    CARDOZAA lot of times I would say, Ryan, the homes I visited, I mean, they would not have money for fines. Like, there's no question about it. A lot of times, these kids are not coming to school because they don't have the money for bus passes or they don't have -- you know, money is a huge issue as what Steven Liggon said. A reason they don't come to school, a lot of these students don't have childcare, if they've got young kids. A lot of times, they're staying home to look after a younger sibling.

  • 13:22:40

    CARDOZASo money is a big -- I mean, I don't think it's realistic to be able to fine these parents. David Catania, a council member, had suggested that MPD officers visit parents to kind of, you know, show them that the city is serious. A lot of times these -- a lot of the parents I didn't meet, but when I went to their houses, they leave before the child to work and they get back after the child comes back from school, from work. So these are very, kind of, in a lot cases, disenfranchised parents. I feel like, there needs to be some other way. I mean, I wonder how well that would work.

  • 13:23:17

    NNAMDIRyan, thank you very much for your call. We're running out of time. I just wanted to share a few tweets that we got. Petey (sp?) tweeted "Say, I didn't skip school. What stopped me was the embarrassment of being caught and the disappointment I would've caused my parents." Suzie says "I skipped and stopped after my parents and teachers kicked me in the butt." Odell says "I didn't skip school until my senior year. If I knew for sure my mother would find out, I would not have skipped. The stick definitely works for me." Same here. Another tweeter said "I thought about skipping and wanted to, but I truly believed that if I skipped, I would get arrested. Also the thought of facing my mother, well, I didn't even try." What's your next report on?

  • 13:23:54

    CARDOZAThe next is about how far we have to go. It's the last of nine parts dealing with high school dropouts. But just in reply to your tweets, Kojo.

  • 13:24:04


  • 13:24:04

    CARDOZAI wanted to say, I met a young girl and I said you know, my mother would have killed me if I skipped school. What does your mother say? And she looked at me and she said, you know, American parents are so much cooler then Indian parents.

  • 13:24:18

    NNAMDIShe thought it was cool that her mother didn't say anything.

  • 13:24:20

    CARDOZAI called my mom and I said, you know, this student I interviewed doesn't think you're cool at all, mom.

  • 13:24:25

    NNAMDINor was my mother very cool. You can find a link to Kavitha Cardoza's education related stories including photos and audio through wamu.org or from a link at our website kojoshow.org. Before we leave the topic of education today, we wanted to invite you to help WAMU news reporters and talk show producers identify topics that reflect your interests and your life. As you may have heard, WAMU is now a member of something called The Public Insight Network. It's a new tool helping journalists identify experts in our local communities. And who are the experts we're looking for right now, parents.

  • 13:25:01

    NNAMDIParents of school aged kids or of kids who will soon be school aged. If you're a parent or guardian of a young child, please consider logging on and taking our parent survey at wamu.org or kojoshow.org. And if you're not a parent, don't worry, though this week's survey isn't for you, you can sign up to be a resource for the PIN Network and WAMU will be in touch in future with questions that go to your areas of expertise. And thanks. And Kavitha, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:25:30

    CARDOZAThank you for inviting me, Kojo.

  • 13:25:31

    NNAMDILater in the broadcast, when we come back, major cities suffering setbacks because airlines are not flying into them as frequently as they used to. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour — March 16, 2018

Friday, Mar 16 2018Maryland Senator Ben Cardin joins us to talk about the youth movement against gun violence, Russian sanctions, and more. D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh shares her thoughts on relief for high water bills and news that D.C. Public Schools is taking over an all girls charter school.