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?”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.