The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 10, 2015

Tackling truancy with the local housing authority

April 10, 2015

According to a new report from the DC Children’s Law Center and DC Lawyers for Youth, 56 percent of DC high school students missed 15 or more days last school year. The report, which details the failings of DC’s truancy policies, asserts that school staff members are best suited to identify barriers to attendance and connect students and families to resources.

Relying on schools to tackle truancy has merit, but school-based interventions alone may be insufficient.  DC has acknowledged the need for community input and its current efforts to involve community partners through the Truancy Taskforce are a good start. But because this committee is only comprised of DC Public Schools, city government, and agencies associated with the legal system, it reduces absenteeism to a problem for schools and the court systems—underestimating  the role of other sectors in leading and designing anti-truancy initiatives.

Through studies surrounding education and housing at the Urban Institute, researchers have found that local housing authorities can play an integral role in successfully re-engaging their school-aged residents with poor attendance rates. 

The housing-school attendance connection

Common barriers to attendance include student, family, school, and community-level factors. Financial constraints such as lack of affordable transportation and residential instability are embedded in each of these obstacles and further inhibit low-income families in particular from maintaining consistent attendance.

For especially vulnerable families, like those at risk of homelessness or living in assisted housing, a school-based intervention might not be the right approach. School staff may not be best positioned to connect students and families to services because they do not necessarily have the best access. 

Local housing authorities can capitalize on proximity to students and families and reduce barriers to attendance by bringing services and resources to assisted housing developments, instead of asking students to extend their school day for meetings or connecting them to external community partners with whom they have no prior relationship. 

A core component of DC’s truancy interventions is student support team (SST) meetings. The teams are composed of school staff who meet with students to identify barriers to attendance. To date, only 36 percent of legally required SST meetings have been held and only 14 percent have actually identified barriers to attendance.

This low compliance rate suggests a new approach to student and family interventions may be warranted. Partnering with the housing authority to identify barriers to attendance can relieve school staff of additional responsibilities and provide access to families that some schools struggle to retain due to the housing instability associated with living in poverty.  

Lessons from another city’s approach   

In Connecticut, the Housing Authority of New Haven (HANH) recognized its unique position to bridge the gap between families and schools  and has entered into a formal partnership with New Haven Public Schools (NHPS).

HANH hired a student engagement officer who coordinates with students and their respective schools to create and monitor plans for students to improve their attendance, similar to DC’s SST meetings. Students are referred to the engagement officer from either NHPS staff or HANH staff and the officer meets with parents and students through home visits to discuss individual challenges and goals to improve attendance. 

Like DC, New Haven is a choice-rich district, meaning students do not always go to school in their neighborhood and may attend schools across the city. For low-income families, transportation is often a barrier to attending school regularly, much less before- or after-school meetings. Having student engagement specialists who can meet students and parents where they live breaks down the transportation barrier that many families face and allows for easy scheduling.

Next steps for DC

The Truancy Taskforce in DC has done a commendable job in partnering with community stakeholders for programming. However, there remains a gap.

For students living in assisted housing and attending public schools, a formal partnership with DC Housing Authority (DCHA) might be critical in improving their attendance. An MOU or data-sharing agreement between the housing authority and school district, as has been done in New Haven and other cities, may display an overlap between students served by the school system and DCHA and could initiate innovative absenteeism programming for the district’s most vulnerable students. 

It is important to note that a housing authority-based intervention may not significantly shift citywide truancy rates if the overlapping percentage is low. Furthermore, there may be dangerous unintended consequences—like threats of eviction based on truancy— to providing attendance rates to an entity that serves as a landlord for some students. The possibility of these harmful effects requires thoughtful planning, but does not eradicate the potential of the housing authority’s role in absenteeism prevention.

Photo by Mike Groll/AP

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