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Statement from Chancellor Henderson Regarding Inaccuracies in Petula Dvorak’s Washington Post Column – ’13-year-old piano prodigy is treated as a truant instead of a star student’

From a press release:

“District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson released the following statement highlighting inaccuracies in Petula Dvorak column in today’s Washington Post. DCPS is hopeful Avery will return to her school very soon:

The recent Washington Post column by Petula Dvorak titled In D.C., a 13-year-old piano prodigy is treated as a truant instead of a star student,” is inaccurate and misleading in its portrayal of the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) truancy protocols, as well as what happened with the family and DCPS. We are disappointed Ms. Dvorak chose to present a false representation of DCPS’ response about this child’s circumstances rather than taking the time to collect the relevant facts. We believe it is important to set the record straight:

· DCPS excused Avery’s absences for international travel last year after conversations with the family and her school, which was confirmed with Avery’s parents by Andrea Allen, Director of Attendance and Support Services in DCPS’ Office of Youth Engagement. Her attendance summary from last year reflects the “authorized school activity” excuse code for her performance–related absences.

· DCPS did not make a referral to a truancy officer, Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) nor any government agency for intervention, since we had clear information regarding the circumstances of these absences. The family was never at risk for truancy prosecution.

· No DCPS student is ever labeled or identified as a “truant” on a transcript, report card, or academic record.

· While DCPS has universal truancy policies in place, we work diligently to recognize unique situations.

It seems that in this matter, while DCPS was working with the family to excuse the student’s absences, the automatic letter that is generated when a student reaches ten unexcused absences was sent. After a conversation with the Office of Youth Engagement, the family was told to disregard the letter. We also confirmed by phone for the parents that no CFSA referral had been completed, nor would this escalate any further. We believed our communication with the family as recently as August 25 clarified that Avery’s absences had been excused. We were surprised to learn that this is the reason why Avery was voluntarily withdrawn from her school. We sincerely apologize for any confusion that the cross-communication might have conveyed.

We recognize that Avery’s circumstances are unique, and we’ve worked closely with her family to support this specific situation. Last year, for example, DCPS ensured that Avery was able to take high school level math courses to meet her academic needs. School staff was aware that Avery’s travel schedule would result in an accrual of absences, and worked to ensure completion of key school assignments during her travels. We are very proud of Avery’s accomplishments throughout her entire educational career as a DC public school student, and we are hopeful that her parents will enroll her back at her back at Deal Middle School soon.

This is also an opportunity to clarify and provide insight about truancy in DCPS. Truancy laws are explicit to ensure consistent in-seat attendance in school, as well as to provide a safety net for students who are not attending school, and may be in harm’s way. Our schools notify families, usually with an automated phone call, after the first unexcused absence. Automated letters are sent from the school to families after a student accrues five, seven and ten unexcused absences. The letter shares details about the law and attendance requirements for students. If a student from age five to 13 accrues ten unexcused absences, schools are required to report those absences to CFSA. When schools contact CFSA, they provide the details they know that may have contributed to the student’s unexcused absences. CFSA proceeds accordingly, contacting the family to understand why the student was absent. In cases when CFSA determines that the absences are not cause for concern and the child is safe, no further action is taken.

While the law is very clearly defined, it is important to recognize the relationships schools have with families. They often know about extenuating circumstances that may lead to a student acquiring absences. Schools are obligated to report these unexcused absences to ensure compliance with the law. We also have the flexibility to excuse, in certain situations, extenuating circumstances, which we did for this student. As we continue to work to make improvements in enforcing truancy protocols, the lesson here is the need for better and more timely communication. However, we take very seriously our dual responsibility to protect and support all students, in all parts of this city. The law, and the resulting protocols, ensures critical checks and balances to protect our city’s young people.”

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