Schools focus on intervention, understanding to stem chronic absenteeism

attendance awareness month

A new national initiative called Attendance Awareness Month was launched in September by Attendance Works, an Oakland-based nonprofit group.

With chronic absenteeism costing California school districts millions and putting huge numbers of students at academic risk, schools from Willits to Los Angeles and beyond are working harder than ever to address the root causes of absenteeism, including student health, family distress and how connected students feel to adults at school.

Schools have always been concerned about students missing school, but there’s a new focus on those who are chronically absent – defined as those who miss 10 percent or more of the school year in excused or unexcused absences.

“Why are these kids gone?” asked Debra Duardo, executive director for Student Health and Human Services at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Why” has become part of a broader conversation about school reform that links chronic absenteeism to discipline policies that “push students out,” school environments that don’t feel emotionally safe, and mental health concerns, such as students – and families – in need of counseling and other support.

“You have to make sure that there’s a school and a classroom that will welcome students back,” said Los Angeles Unified School District Board member Steve Zimmer. “Why would you want to attend a school where you weren’t wanted?”

Educational toll

California is one of five states that does not keep a statewide tally of chronically absent students, but 10 percent of students nationwide are estimated to be chronically absent, according to a report by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Officials believe the state rate at least matches the national average, which would mean 622,099 students are missing nearly a month of school or more each year.

Getting chronically absent students back to campus is actually “less than half the battle,” Zimmer said. Zimmer created Student Recovery Day, an annual outreach effort in the district that on Sept. 6 will send school mental health workers, principals, teachers, law enforcement officers and city officials to knock on doors and find out why students are not attending school. Since 2010, the annual outreach on Student Recovery Day has resulted in a total of 6,774 home visits by district and school staff, and 4,000 “recovered” students, according to the district.

As part of the newly launched Attendance Awareness Month, a nationwide initiative organized by the Oakland-based nonprofit group Attendance Works, 25 California school superintendents from Fresno to Sacramento City to Sanger have pledged to use attendance data to identify students who are chronically absent and to help families overcome barriers to attendance. To ramp up the focus on attendance, the Oakland Unified School District last month released a catchy new video of students and professional football player Marshawn Lynch, who attended Oakland public schools and UC Berkeley, dancing and singing about how they are preparing for their future careers by attending school every day.

The starting point is to make sure parents know that students suffer academically, sometimes severely, when they miss classroom instruction, particularly in the crucial junctures of kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade.

Missing 10 percent of kindergarten is associated with poor academic performance in first grade; in sixth grade, chronic absence is a clear indicator of a student who will likely not graduate from high school; by ninth grade, missing 20 percent of the school year is a better predictor of dropping out than test scores, according to Attendance Works.

The carrot or the stick

State law requires children ages 6 to 18 to be in school. Whether because of philosophical belief or lack of counseling resources, most California school districts traditionally have used law enforcement – court appearances, fines and even criminal charges – to deal with parents of chronically absent students, said David Kopperud, chairman of the State School Attendance Review Board. The board is charged with coordinating statewide policies to try to keep chronically absent students out of the juvenile justice system and in school. But Kopperud said the majority of chronically absent students are floundering because of mental health issues, including depression and drug addiction, either in themselves or family members.

More than 80 percent of students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade read below grade level after third grade. Source: Applied Survey Research, May 2011

More than 80 percent of students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade read below grade level after third grade. Source: Applied Survey Research, May 2011

“You’ve got a mom who is looking desperately for help for her son, who is suicidal,” said Kopperud, recalling a phone conversation he had with a mother. But at a meeting to address to the teen’s poor attendance, officials told the woman, “‘You’ve got to be a better parent. You’ve got to get the kid to school,'” Kopperud said. “They talk about the compulsory education law, but there is no mention of mental health. They don’t know about the terrible divorce the parents went through.”

“They are putting a Band-Aid on a much bigger sore,” agreed Gordon Jackson, director of the California Department of Education’s Coordinated Student Support and Adult Education Division, which oversees health, counseling and other support programs provided at schools. “We’re asking them to look at what else is in play.”

Home visits and intervention

The Los Angeles district is among the state’s leaders in absenteeism intervention. The district launched a pilot Attendance Improvement Program in 2011 after data showed students lost nearly 5 million instructional days and the district lost more than $157 million in funding because of absences, both unexcused and excused, in 2010-11. A team of 75 social workers employed by the district as pupil services and attendance counselors began making home visits to chronically absent students from schools where attendance was the lowest.

They found a lot going on at homes during the school day: middle school students taking care of baby siblings while their parents worked, kindergartners whose mothers wanted to keep them home, and high school students who had been told by schools “don’t come back” following discipline issues.

“We’ll find a lot of teenagers that are just there and they’re not happy,” said Duardo, of Los Angeles Unified. “They’ve given up hope. They don’t know how to get reconnected.”

Once the root cause is identified, the problem solving begins. Social workers and families brainstorm about child care options, look through pages of kindergarten curriculum to let parents know that their student is at risk of falling seriously behind, and talk about counseling and academic support programs to help a student re-enter.

LAUSD Absenteeism and Revenue Loss

Los Angeles Unified School District students lost nearly 5 million instructional days and the district lost more than $157 million in funding because of absences, both unexcused and excused, in 2010-11. Source: Los Angeles Unified School District

Social workers aim to make immediate referrals, often to one of the 13 student wellness centers or to one of the eight mental health clinics on Los Angeles Unified campuses. Some problems are especially tough to address, such as mothers who are victims of domestic violence and too depressed to get all of the children out the door every day.

“What we’re trying to do is reach out to parents and say we know you care about your child,” Duardo said, “we know that there are issues you’re facing, and we’re available to help you solve some of those issues.”

Finding solutions

A growing number of districts are taking similar solutions-based approaches.

In the Chula Vista Elementary School District, school nurses work with parents to reassure them that their child with asthma will be safe at school. Asthma is one of the leading causes of student absences, but with proper management, it needn’t be.

“They work out a ‘what if’ scenario, an asthma plan,” said Lisa Butler, student placement manager at the Chula Vista district. “We get permission to administer medication, if everyone feels comfortable with that. And we say it’s in the plan: if he’s still coughing half an hour after school started, he’s supposed to go back to the school nurse and reevaluate.”

Three school districts in the far northern part of the state – Willits Unified, Laytonville Unified and Round Valley Unified – have worked together to compare each district’s attendance data trends with results from the California Healthy Kids Survey in 2010-11, a survey of student resiliency, protective factors, and risk behaviors by the California Department of Education. Although no students were identified by name, staff found a correlation between mental health and attendance patterns.

“We found kids who were engaging in negative behaviors, or who had said they had been depressed for two or more weeks, also were more likely to have chronic truancy,” said Pat Sanger, project director for Building Resiliency Opportunities for the North County, the federally funded Safe Schools Healthy Students initiative that works with the three districts. To address the issue, the districts formed partnerships with social service agencies to improve student services for mental health, violence and substance abuse issues. Sanger said her team is still compiling data to measure impact to see if chronic absenteeism has been reduced.

The results in Los Angeles have been positive. Schools participating in the Attendance Improvement Project saw a decline in chronic absenteeism of 13.4 percent in kindergarten and 4.9 percent in 9th grade, according to district data between 2011 and 2012. Part of what has worked, Duardo said, is holding everyone – students, families, teachers, staff, law enforcement and community members – accountable for getting children to school and helping them stay there.

Duardo calls it a culture change that is rooted in making school an engaging place for students, teachers and parents – and to address the root causes of chronic absenteeism, even if the cause is the oft-reported remark that “school is boring.”

“There’s no question some kids are bored,” she said. “It’s working with teachers about how to engage better, and it’s working with kids: If school is boring, what’s your role in improving your experience?”

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her and follow her @JaneAdams.


Filed under: Discipline, Hot Topics, Reforms, Student Health

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17 Responses to “Schools focus on intervention, understanding to stem chronic absenteeism”

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  1. HL on Sep 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm09/7/2013 1:08 pm

    • 000

    I have often wondered how much teacher absenteeism affects students too. Some teachers are gone a lot, not only for sickness. I wonder if a teacher with many workshops, meetings, Union business and the like affect student outcomes as much as student absenteeism does. I am always surprised when I hear how frequently some teachers need to be away from the classroom. Most subs only hold down the fort while the teacher is gone. Is that the only time ongoing education for teachers can realistically happen? This is not meant as part of what I perceive as a current backlash on teachers in general. I am curious how this fits into the equation.


    • navigio on Oct 3, 2013 at 11:53 am10/3/2013 11:53 am

      • 000

      This is a good point. Its possible for kids to miss less time than their teachers and still be labelled truant (if its not excused). While clearly teachers have other responsibilities, its important to note that funding loss via reduced ADA happens whether a student absence is excused or not. In that sense, there is an analogy in that the reason is not as important as the impact.

  2. CarolineSF on Sep 6, 2013 at 11:15 pm09/6/2013 11:15 pm

    • 000

    I’m almost 60 and grew up in a town of 15,000 (and lived a block from my K-6 elementary school), and it was never remotely on the radar that a teacher would visit my house. In what era was this supposedly happening, Frances O’Neill Zimmerman? Were my teachers actually itching to drop and and visit me and the 29 other kids in my classes, but were prevented by rigid union rules?


    • Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Sep 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm09/7/2013 2:29 pm

      • 000

      That was in the early 1970’s and the CTA did not have anywhere near the power it does today. I doubt there was a functioning union at my kids’ SoCal public schools at that time. Some historian here can tell us more about that. In any event, the custom soon passed, so no worries, Carolyn. Nobody makes a home visit out here anymore and it’s every kid for him and herself. Our schools are too big, classes are too big, staff treats parents like strangers if not enemies, and still we manage, for better or worse, depending on where you live and your luck of the draw.

      Thanks to HL below, as well, for bringing up the issue of teacher absenteeism. It is still pervasive and disruptive to kids in classes who HATE having subs and usually act out when they have one. It is disruptive to most schools which lack lists of excellent highly-qualified regular substitutes. Families never like hearing there has been someone standing in for the regular teacher. Such time-off regulations are set in the stone of district/union contracts and, as is only proper for a union contract, advantage the teacher not the students.

      This is not part of any backlash against teachers. It is about a system that limps along, underfunded and inadequate to the human needs of California children and families who use our public schools, with special interests of all sorts carving out their pound of flesh in advance of special delivery to the citizenry.

      • CarolineSF on Sep 7, 2013 at 9:22 pm09/7/2013 9:22 pm

        • 000

        Oh. I graduated from high school in 1971, and no teachers were in evidence visiting my house before that, so I guess this supposed golden age of home teacher visits must have happened since my time and then ended before my kids’ K-12 era. (I was being wry in blaming the end of the supposed home teacher visits on teachers’ unions.)

        I will come clean and say that I suspect that is fantasyland and there never WAS a golden era, or any era, in which home teacher visits were common, or anything but extremely unusual.

        By the way, my kids attended urban public schools spanning the period from 1996-2012, and as a parent I found that staff welcomed me as a volunteer and activist school community member, rather than treating me like a stranger or an enemy.

        Parallel universe, I guess.

        • Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Sep 8, 2013 at 8:40 pm09/8/2013 8:40 pm

          • 000

          Maybe that’s why it may be better to live in the Bay Area than in San Diego. I certainly don’t think of it as a golden age — then or now. What’s mostly the matter is that it’s profoundly impersonal and if that were remedied, the entire system would be improved greatly.

          Some things that were terrible about the public schools here in the 1970’s are still bad — knee-jerk unhelpful staff, loud bells, too-big classes, 1,000 kids at lunch at a time, no adults on the playgrounds, little outreach from school to home. (Email doesn’t count.)

          Some things have changed for the better — stronger principals encourage and understand the academic work of their teachers and students; greater emphasis on literacy; more assistance for special ed kids in the mainstream classroom; no more routine segregation of black and brown kids into special education ghettos; annual information provided families about their kid’s academic performance and the school’s standing.

          • CarolineSF on Sep 9, 2013 at 7:28 am09/9/2013 7:28 am

            • 000

            On the Parents for Public Schools-San Francisco listserve, there’s currently a discussion about how to handle transitioning the traditional Wednesday envelope that’s sent home to parents to an all- e-mail format, to save paper. Parent leaders at my own kids’ elementary alma mater are involved in that discussion, but they are still currently using the paper Wednesday envelope format.

            So the Wednesday envelope counts as outreach from school to home but it won’t if parent volunteers transition it to e-mail? Can you explain why that is? And at my kids’ high school alma mater, as PTA VP/Communications, I created the format for a weekly e-mail announcement to the entire parent community that’s still a primary mode of communication. I worked pretty hard on it as a volunteer for some years, and many fellow parents said they appreciated it. Why doesn’t it count?

            A lot of these very confident declarations don’t jibe with my real-life experience as a K-12 public school parent, for good and for bad. (Families of kids with disabilities do still struggle to get sufficient services, for example.)

            • el on Sep 9, 2013 at 1:00 pm09/9/2013 1:00 pm

              • 000

              I certainly think email communications count, and are helpful. I just wish all parents had email access such that it could be considered universal.

              It’s a small thing, but it’s another small thing that the Federal government could do that would strengthen our communities – as places to work, as places to run commerce, and in communication – to ensure that email and internet connections are as ubiquitous as a post office mailbox or a telephone. That it is not is yet another thing schools have to compensate for and work around. Universal broadband access isn’t an issue of education per se, but it sure would help.

    • el on Sep 7, 2013 at 8:44 pm09/7/2013 8:44 pm

      • 000

      My sense is that it’s not a union issue, but more about parents not loving the invasion of their privacy. I’ve never known teachers to do it either, but I have heard of it as a past practice.

  3. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Sep 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm09/6/2013 4:28 pm

    • 000

    Obviously, big and impersonal schools don’t work on a lot of levels, so right there California has a problem. The problem is magnified when you are talking about truancy. Poverty, familial disfunction, poor health, transiency and truancy are all bedfellows.

    In the old days, an elementary school teacher made home visits at the beginning of the year to every child in the classroom. In the old days, a school principal may have lived the Comer model of creating a school that was the center of a community, not on the formidable fenced-in periphery.

    As for proper asthma care and registered nurses on school campuses 24/7, the two are not linked except by union propaganda.


    • Manuel on Sep 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm09/6/2013 4:48 pm

      • 000

      Question, Ms. Zimmerman: who is going to reevaluate if the child needs something more than an inhaler? Would you, if you were a parent of such child, be happy in trusting the school to make medical decisions? (My guess is that it will take a lawsuit to address this, rather than the nurses’ union propaganda, as you put it.)

      • el on Sep 6, 2013 at 5:47 pm09/6/2013 5:47 pm

        • 000

        I am actually fine with the school personnel evaluating my particular asthmatic child rather than an RN if that’s what we have (other parents may not agree). It’s not a subtle thing. The problem I have is that the rules around handling the medications make the process too slow. Child must decide that the situation is so bad that it’s worth disrupting the class. Child must get attention of teacher. Child must either walk or be escorted to office. Office must find inhaler. Or, parent must be contacted. It takes a long time and it’s not a kid-friendly process. The rescue inhaler works best when it is used immediately.

        In addition, because the office wants its own inhaler under the control of the nurse or nurse-surrogate, there’s the challenge of getting an extra $75 inhaler (don’t get me started on why they cost that much when they should be a couple of dollars) that is dedicated to sitting in school, and which the school will throw away at the end of the school year.

      • Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on Sep 7, 2013 at 2:08 pm09/7/2013 2:08 pm

        • 000

        A little asthma education for all school instructors and office personnel goes a long way. School staff can and should be as informed as any parent of an afflicted child about the signs, symptoms and remedies for an asthma attack. As I write this, asthmatic kids are wheezing around on artificial turf soccer fields in midday San Diego sweltering heat. There are no nurses on the sidelines.

        (Don’t get me wrong, Manuel, I love and admire nurses and believe that the numerous poor kids in California public schools need them, and not just for helping with asthma. But is it a top priority? No, not when there’s another less expensive efficacious remedy.)

  4. Manuel on Sep 6, 2013 at 9:06 am09/6/2013 9:06 am

    • 000

    I’m sorry, but I can’t help it:

    “They work out a ‘what if’ scenario, an asthma plan,” said Lisa Butler, student placement manager at the Chula Vista district. “We get permission to administer medication, if everyone feels comfortable with that. And we say it’s in the plan: if he’s still coughing half an hour after school started, he’s supposed to go back to the school nurse and reevaluate.”

    Chula Vista still have full time nurses? In LAUSD, Matt Hill, the Chief Strategy Officer, says that the Ed Code obligates the district to have a nurse only 0.5 days/week in elementary schools, 1 day/week in middle schools, and 1 day/week in high schools. Accordingly, he has worked out the average school budget based on this belief. (If this sounds like a horrible lie to you, please see slides #11, 12, and 13 of this presentation Mr. Hill made to Boardmember Galatzan’s Valley Schools Task Force meeting of April 30, 2012 on the District’s budget for 2012-13.)

    Right off the bat, the proposal to focus on health problems to solve absenteeism will likely be unworkable for 10% of the state’s children. So, yes, it is a question of money, as always.

  5. el on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:45 am09/6/2013 8:45 am

    • 000

    A factor that is probably not obvious to people on the outside is that schools can sometimes create better attendance with careful attention to the calendar and to their attendance data. This is part of the reason some districts have created week long breaks out of Thanksgiving and the President’s day holidays and then compensated by starting the year earlier.

  6. el on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:35 am09/6/2013 8:35 am

    • 000

    First, everyone should know this statement is a tautology:

    “by ninth grade, missing 20 percent of the school year is a better predictor of dropping out than test scores”

    In 9th grade, if you miss that much school, you will fail all your classes regardless of your academic scores in that class. IE, even if you’ve got straight As on your exams and are caught up with your homework, the absences trump that and you fail.

    An interesting control group would be kids who miss particular classes frequently due to athletics, by the way.

    I applaud the efforts to get to the kids, to find out what the problems are, and to try to solve them. I would add that sometimes the kids cannot express what the issues are. Bullying and an uncomfortable environment should be the first thing suspected for any child missing a lot of school, especially if other causes are not evident, and it could be happening in school or to or from school.

    Teachers and administrators may want to take care that they don’t inadvertently create a more hostile environment with their actions when the student returns. For example, I had been out for a week after being extremely sick and sneezy. The day I came back, I was pulled out of class and harangued by my counselor about being out. After that, my reaction was that I didn’t feel safe coming to school if I was still half-sick, because I didn’t have the mental strength to deal with all the extra hassles I’d get when I returned.

    The half-sick state is something we rarely appreciate. If a child is in that situation, maybe they can make it to school, but they can’t also handle several hours of homework and an hour of PE. What you don’t want to do is create a scenario where a kid is better off staying home to get the homework finished rather than coming to school and having another day to do the homework. Either flexibility in dates so homework isn’t always due the next day or a handful of one-day-extension passes can help with this.

    I am happy to hear them working with kids with asthma. We as adults should appreciate an earlier study highlighted here, that many classrooms have poor air quality and poor HVAC systems. That is a real problem for kids with asthma and it’s our responsibility to deal with it, not their responsibility to soldier through a day when they can barely breathe.

    Another issue for kids with asthma is that even if they have inhalers on campus, they’re locked up in the office. It is not comfortable nor easy for a child to interrupt her classroom and ask to go to the office for it. Can we do this better? Can we allow kids, even if it’s just older kids, to have their inhalers on their person, or with their classroom teacher? Most especially for PE?

    By the way, I am struck by the fact that kids need a (IMHO pointless) physical plus an extensive health questionnaire to participate in voluntary sports teams… but none of this is part of the process for the required PE. Even in my small school, the way the PE teacher found out about my child’s asthma was me seeking out the teacher and discussing it – the locator cards with this information are not shared, and there seems to be no ordinary procedure for routine communication of those issues. Careful questioning of my child led me to realize that some days when she wanted to stay home sick were about not feeling up to PE specifically, which I could then address with a note for that alone.

  7. navigio on Sep 6, 2013 at 7:41 am09/6/2013 7:41 am

    • 000

    I dont like that we measure this problem in dollars lost. While it obviously is one side-effect, placing the emphasis there tends to lead to ‘solutions’ that save money, but dont address the underlying need/cause.

    I agree with making an effort to make schools more engaging. I’m pretty sure most district leaders have pretty good ideas on how to do that but dont because it costs money. Oh well, priorities.

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