As a reporter in Baltimore for nearly three decades, I know this city is rich in stories. This fall, thanks to a public radio reporting grant from OSI, I have been working on a documentary on an urgent local topic– the scourge of truancy.
For generations, the city’s truancy and dropout rate has led the state, often in double digits. It seems that as frequently as superintendents have changed at North Avenue over the years, school attendance has been addressed and dealt with in an equally chaotic way. The epidemic has festered into a gigantic cycle of failure that’s rolled for decades, sadly illustrated by lives shorted of potential and broken by illiteracy, poverty and often violence.
Maybe it’s time to hold a truancy summit to assess gains and look toward the future. Include teachers, parents, students, researchers and education advocates and experts. Set an agenda to work toward common, long-sought solutions.
There’s momentum for such a meeting. In almost all city communities, I’ve witnessed a concerted effort to revolutionize the city’s indiscriminate approach to this crisis. It is built not only on the federal No Child Left Behind requirements for attendance but on new partnerships between city and state agencies and researchers who use data to illustrate and implement patterns of success and failure. Add to that a state task force working up recommendations for new truancy legislation and establishment of Child Stat at City Hall. And grassroots and school-based efforts: In the humble surroundings of a community center where mentors tutor math and reading and then provide a hot meal each day; high school students lining up to swipe ID cards into a computer for attendance that’s uploaded within seconds to headquarters; ex-felons trained to work with at-risk middle schoolers urging them to stay in school. A citywide push to return the system’s 925 dropouts from last year to school has netted hundreds of reenrollments. “All we had to do was ask them to come back,” explained Bob Heck a school board member, with a tinge of awe.
Such successes deserve closer monitoring. As Dante Wilson, a community activist in west Baltimore, said: “We need to get on the same page — for the sake of our children.”
Energy is great, as generations of Baltimore residents say they are fed up with constant failures. You don’t have to be a reporter to figure that out.