Education officials seek team approach to fight chronic absenteeism

June 13, 2013
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

Backed by the knowledge that the first symptom of academic failure is an empty desk, state education officials are putting a priority on battling chronic absenteeism by enlisting support across state agencies.

The California Department of Education convened a first-of-its-kind forum last month of state and local experts from school districts, health and social services agencies, district attorneys’ offices and advocacy groups. The goal: to get them to work cooperatively to keep children in school.   

“We can have our best teachers in place, but if our students are not there, it doesn’t make a difference,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in his opening remarks, where he stressed that schools alone cannot solve this problem.

A 2010 California law defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of the typical 180-day school year, the equivalent of about one month of school. Most states use a similar standard and researchers estimate that nationwide, as many as 7.5 million students a year are chronically absent. Chronic absenteeism includes excused and unexcused absences and out-of-school suspensions. 

California is one of five states that does not keep a statewide tally of chronically absent students, according to a report released last year by the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, but officials believe the state’s chronic absenteeism rate at least matches the national average.  

Among students who are chronically absent for two years any time between eighth and 12th grade, only half are likely to graduate, according to Attendance Works, a San Francisco-based national research and advocacy organization, which helped organize the May 28 meeting in Sacramento.

“If you want to know in third grade if a child is going to drop out of school, chronic absence is an indicator,” Dr. Robert Ross, president and chief executive officer of The California Endowment, which has a focus on children’s and wellness issues, told participants at the meeting.

Poverty at the root

It’s not just high school students playing hooky. Teens do have the highest rate of chronic absences, but after that, research shows that some of the highest levels of absenteeism are in elementary school, starting in kindergarten, where attendance is not mandatory.

Nearly one out of every 10 kindergarten students in the United States is chronically absent, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

Research indicates that lost learning time in the early years can set students up for academic failure. Only 17 percent of California children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade scored proficient or better on the California standardized tests in English language arts, compared to 64 percent who attended school regularly, according to a 2011 report prepared for Attendance Works.

Even what appear to be high attendance rates may mask a chronic absenteeism problem. A review of six elementary schools in the Oakland Unified School District by Attendance Works illustrates the situation. Each of the schools had an average daily attendance rate of 95 percent. When researchers looked deeper, they found that, in five of the campuses, the same 12 percent to 16 percent of students were absent most often.

Being chronically absent lowered scores on the math California Standards Test for Redwood City elementary school students, regardless of how well they performed the previous year. Source: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, Stanford University

Poverty contributes significantly to absenteeism. Asthma is the leading cause of school absences, and rates of the disease are disproportionately high among low-income students. Asthma accounts for more than 1.6 million missed days of school in California and 14 million missed days nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet health professionals say asthma should almost never prevent a child from going to school because it can be kept under control with adequate health care.

One of the goals of the forum in Sacramento was to change the belief that schools can solve chronic absenteeism on their own and to promote collaboration to find solutions.

“This is not about piling on the schools,” Ross said. “This is about how can we help and how can we be smarter.”

He urged the agencies present to develop data sharing procedures that could be used as an “early warning system” to identify and help students who appear to be at risk of becoming chronically absent.

“A child who is chronically absent should elicit the same response as a kid who shows up at school with suspicious bruises,” Ross said. “The pediatrician in me says this is a signal of social-emotional unwellness that needs attention.”

Building on success

Some successful models already exist.

In Alameda County, the district attorney’s office collaborated with the courts and probation department to start the Truancy Referral Program. The program brings together public health and social services officials, the juvenile justice system and community service organizations to provide help when a student is chronically absent, whether it is due to chronic illness or homelessness.

Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick said without intervention, she often ends up seeing these young students when they’re older and have dropped out of school.

“Nearly every criminal defendant we dealt with had that common thread of not graduating from high school and being chronically absent,” Drenick said.

Drenick also started the Truancy Court Program in Alameda County 10 years ago to work with parents of chronically absent students. Parents are referred to Truancy Court after violating previous orders to keep their children in school. The Truancy Court sees parents only after they’ve already been referred to and violated orders from their school-based School Attendance Review Team, as well as violated orders from the next level of intervention, their local district’s School Attendance Review Board. The boards are composed of parents, school officials and representatives of law enforcement, welfare and health departments, as well as community members.

The goal of the state-mandated attendance boards is to keep students in school, and they have authority to enforce the state’s compulsory attendance laws. However, they tend to be reactive, said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works. Their biggest stick is the threat of referring parents to the courts, where they can face fines of up to $1,000, be ordered to perform community service or, in the most extreme cases, be sentenced to jail time.

In Alameda County’s Truancy Court, Drenick said they try not be punitive and instead work harder with parents in the most difficult cases.

Still, she said the gravity of being brought before a judge adds some might. “Eighty-six percent of the children whose parents come through our attendance court return to class,” Drenick said. “Using the power of the court can really do a lot of good.”

The most effective SARBs don’t just hand down punishments. They have strong support from superintendents and principals who help prevent absences with very clear attendance rules, outreach to parents and ensuring that schools are safe places for students, free from bullying, drug and alcohol abuse and gang violence.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who sent a representative to the Sacramento forum, recently began a similar effort to connect law enforcement with school districts and parents when students are first identified as chronically absent, instead of being brought in when it’s time to prosecute the parents.

These cooperative strategies, which are designed to quickly link chronically absent students with the help and support they need from the proper government agency or nonprofit organization, could become more widely used in California if nine school districts seeking a federal waiver from some provisions of No Child Left Behind are successful in their efforts.

In its application, the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, as the consortium of districts calls itself, is proposing to create a new accountability rating system called the School Quality Improvement Index, to replace the state’s Academic Performance Index, which is based mainly on test scores. Chronic absenteeism would be one of the criteria of the group’s School Quality Improvement Index.

California Department of Education officials are hopeful that more districts will create collaborative projects based on the ideas shared at the meeting. In September, Attendance Works will try to give that process a jolt by launching its first Attendance Awareness Month to coincide with the opening of school.

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