Absent leadership: Wilkinsburg schools must focus on attendance

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Three out of four students at Wilkinsburg High School were habitually absent without an excuse last year, an abysmal statistic trumped only by the district’s lack of awareness of how bad the attendance problem had become.

In one year, truancy at the high school took a 19 percentage-point jump. Where 57 percent of students had at least six unexcused absences in 2011-12, an outrageous 76 percent were truant a year later. The rate among middle school students was just as bad and, district-wide, the rate was nearly 48 percent, the highest in Allegheny County and exponentially above the county-wide figure of 8 percent.

What also set Wilkinsburg apart from other districts was the fact that nobody in school administration was watching. The district has not had a designated, state-mandated attendance officer since October 2012, so no one was issuing citations to families whose children were missing too much school. Board member Karen Payne, who had been president until December, and the new president, Ed Donovan, said the epidemic absenteeism came as news to them.

At all levels, the district failed in the most basic rule of education — students must be in class in order to learn anything. New superintendent Lee McFerren, who inherited this problem from his predecessor, and the board are promising quick resolution, but they’re still at an impasse in a squabble over whether the district’s attendance officer should be a union member or not.

Seriously? That’s what they’re worried about? Meanwhile, at the high school, 157 of the 206 students in grades nine through 11 are chronically absent; at the middle school, 114 students among 265 are habitual truants.

Solving the enormous attendance problem will require a change in attitude from students, parents and school personnel, but until the leaders at the top start taking responsibility for what is happening in Wilkinsburg schools, there’s little reason to expect that attendance — and, by extension, academic performance — will improve.

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