Williams: Stopping truancy early

When I visit town-hall meetings and school assemblies, I often ask the same question: “What is the one thing that most people who get arrested in Philadelphia have in common?”

The answer: They did not graduate from high school.

One of the key solutions to curbing crime is ensuring that more Philadelphia children earn their diplomas. This is why, to combat truancy, I have partnered with the School District, Family Court, the Police Department, and the Department of Human Services. Combating truancy is a smart approach to crime prevention.

The math is simple. We either invest in solutions now or pay a greater price later. If we invest $4,000 per pupil for early-childhood education now, we avoid paying $40,000 annually to incarcerate them later. Elementary-age children who fail to attend school today become tomorrow’s high school dropouts, and dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated during their lives than graduates. Dropouts also are more likely to end up in the streets either as perpetrators of crimes or as victims.

A report by the group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids concluded that the average value of preventing a baby from becoming a youth who drops out, uses drugs, and becomes a career criminal is at least $2.5 million per individual. If we are serious about changing the factors that lead to overpopulated prisons and dwindling budgets, we need to get serious about our children being in school, on time, every day.

During elementary school, children build crucial academic and life skills, including reading, writing, math, science, socialization, and cooperative skills. A Head Start study found that language ability in the first and second grades accounts for 88 percent of differences in ability among third and fourth graders. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child reports that remedial education is both less effective and more costly compared with early-childhood education. Put simply, a child cannot learn without the basic skills acquired in elementary school.

Children also cannot learn if they are not in school. About 15,000 city students — 10 percent — are absent each day, half of them with no valid excuse. Chronic absenteeism is one of the strongest predictors of school failure, and it often starts as young as kindergarten.

Research conducted by the Philadelphia Education Fund and Johns Hopkins University found that Philadelphia children who attend school less than 80 percent of the time have a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of graduating on time from high school. This study, “The Early Warning Indicators Project,” developed the methodology to identify potential dropouts, children with one or more of the early-warning indicators: attending school less than 80 percent of the time, receiving a final poor behavior mark, and failing an English or math course. The likelihood of dropping out rises if there is more than one indicator. Reducing truancy, therefore, is a critical component of improving Philadelphia’s 63 percent graduation rate.

For these reasons, I have joined with the School District to focus on parental responsibility for elementary- and middle-school truancy. Parents will receive notices that truancy is against the law, and that it is my duty to enforce the law. Prosecutors from my office will hold meetings with parents of truant students at schools across the city to urge them to improve their children’s attendance. If that doesn’t work, my office will prosecute parents who play a role in allowing their children to unlawfully miss school.

Preventing truancy does more than protect public safety; it protects precious public resources in the midst of one of Philadelphia’s worst economic crises. If ever there were a time to protect the investment we make in our children, it is now. By doing what it takes to keep kids in schools every day, we will save millions of dollars in public resources and we will greatly improve public safety. The essence of our families, the safety of our communities, and the future of our economy depends on our ability to ensure that education occurs in the classroom.

Being district attorney is about more than just locking folks up. I believe that crime prevention is even more important than excellence in prosecution. If you want to help me make our city safer, please advocate for better early-childhood educational opportunities and for improved strategies to reduce truancy.

R. Seth Williams is district attorney of Philadelphia. E-mail him at seth.williams@phila.gov.