On an early fall evening, hundreds of students, ranging from 1st-graders to high school seniors, filed onto the stage of a cavernous auditorium at a San Francisco Bay Area high school. One by one, they marched to the microphone to state their name and their milestone in achieving perfect attendance for at least a year: Some had made the goal for four years, some for seven years. One girl, a recent graduate, received a trophy in absentia, for 12.
Twelve years without a single tardy, let alone an absence.
The annual ceremony is among a host of incentives the Pittsburg Unified School District uses to encourage attendance and reduce chronic absenteeism, defined in California as missing more than 10 percent of school days in a year for any reason — excused, unexcused or suspension.
The district was among those that earned a state award for its efforts last spring. David Kopperud, who heads the State Student Attendance Review Board, said Pittsburg, a suburban district about 30 miles east of Oakland, was selected because of the breadth of its interventions — rewarding students for high attendance rates, early identification of those who are slipping and intensive services for struggling families.
It comes as the state and nation turn to chronic absenteeism as a red flag that reliably predicts future academic trouble and may indicate pressing personal and family crises that can permanently hold students back.
At the same time, Pittsburg’s experience affirms the difficulty of reducing absenteeism. Absenteeism rates in the district have dipped downwards, and are lower than in many districts with comparable poverty levels. But the district’s rate remains higher than the state average.
Three years ago, the state Legislature included chronic absenteeism as a measure of student engagement in the new school and district accountability system it established through the new Local Control Funding Formula. But the state only began collecting the data last year. The California Department of Education released the first statewide data on the metric last week. It showed that 1 in 10 California students was chronically absent last year, with foster children, homeless students, African-American and Native American students posting the highest rates.
The data will eventually be added to the state’s new California School Dashboard so educators and the public can track progress on these and several other measures.
ReJois Frazier-Meyers — who as Pittsburg Unified’s director of student services oversees attendance — emceed the attendance ceremony, beaming in a brown suit. Then she gave a shout-out to the families, praising their role in getting the students to school. Nearly three-fourths of the students in the district receive free or reduced-price meals. Some parents lack transportation. Some are homeless.
Getting kids to school is not always easy. In fact, research shows that children living in poverty are two to three times as likely to be chronically absent.
“We appreciate you,” Frazier-Myers said, urging the parents gathered in the audience — all of whom came to celebrate students with perfect attendance records — to stand. “Without you, this wouldn’t have been possible.”
As the district’s director of student services, she held her first attendance award ceremony a dozen years ago. She gave out four certificates for students who had at least a year of perfect attendance. This year, she handed out 258.
The district offers other incentives to come to school, including classroom parties and free dress days, when rewarded students can ditch the school uniform for the outfits of their choosing. District maintenance vans are decorated with bright messages that encourage parents to do their part: “Get Them To School.” “100% Attendance, A Better Future.”
An equally ample menu of interventions kicks in as soon as a pattern of late arrivals or missed days emerges. Principals and school parent liaisons share research and data on attendance, make home visits and offer access to after-school programs, eyeglasses, bus passes and mental health services.
Missing at least 10 percent of the school year, particularly in early grades, studies show, reduces the likelihood that students will read proficiently by 3rd grade, increases the chances of poor academic performance in middle school and increases the likelihood that students will drop out in high school. Students living in poverty, students of color and students with disabilities have disproportionately higher rates.
In California’s plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, approved by Congress in 2015 to replace the federal No Child Left Behind Law, the state has chosen to use chronic absenteeism as another academic indicator along with test scores for grades K-8. That’s because of what officials called the “strong correlation” of chronic absenteeism “with future academic attainment.” In including this metric, California joins 35 other states and the District of Columbia.
For those who have pushed educators to focus more
attention on chronic absenteeism, it’s cause for celebration.
“One of the big shifts is just acknowledging that, more than just a test score, you really have to look at a child’s entire experience and ability to learn,” said Cecelia Leong, associate director of programs for Attendance Works, a national nonprofit dedicated to advancing student success by reducing chronic absenteeism.
Frazier-Myers has spent decades committed to improving educational outcomes of low-income students who often struggle on the margins of the public school system.
Raised and educated in public schools in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, she returned there in 1995 with two master’s degrees as the founding principal of a public junior high school.
Students “had to walk through Hunters Point, where there were gangs, deaths in front of our schools, drugs, but they were empowered and most of them are successful,” she said in the auditorium lobby of Pittsburg High, as families snapped photos.
Three years ago, with a new superintendent at the helm in Pittsburg, her attendance efforts got a funding boost through the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan. Among other duties, a team of parent liaisons — one at each school — now help track attendance in tandem with achievement. They reach out to parents when a child’s absences and tardies are beginning to pile up.
When it comes to tallying absenteeism among students, schools historically have focused on truancy, or unexcused absences, in many cases responding with punitive measures, among them requiring court appearances and fining parents. They’ve also long monitored average daily attendance. In California, schools get state funding based on that metric. Tracking chronic absenteeism shifts the focus, enabling schools and districts to drill down on the reasons for all absences and address the needs of individual students and families.
Take Rodolfo Gutierrez. On a fall morning in late October, the 8-year-old rose as the sky outside his Pittsburg home turned pink. He pulled a sweatshirt from his dresser and grabbed his backpack from the closet. Whispering to avoid waking his 4-year-old sister, he said he was proud for getting up on time, without complaint.
The 3rd-grader with a round face and soft buzz cut then clambered into the family minivan and rolled up to Marina Vista Elementary School with 15 minutes to spare. He shuffled past the sandwich board that every day lists classes that have achieved perfect attendance. In class, his teacher launched into a spelling review. Rodolfo sat up front, with his hand up.
Rodolfo wasn’t always so cooperative. Beginning in 1st grade, he resisted getting up so fiercely that his grandmother — his legal guardian — had to pull him from bed and put on his clothes.
“I had to get him up by force,” Lourdes Flores, who arrived here from Guadalajara, Mexico, 21 years ago, said in Spanish. “It was, ‘I don’t like it,’ ‘I don’t want to go.’ It was always like that.”
In the spring of Rodolfo’s 1st grade year, the Marina Vista parent liaison invited Flores to a group meeting, where parents typically get a folder containing their student’s attendance data next to academic achievement measures — with a focus on reading scores. The folders also contain available attendance and academic rates for the nation, state, district and school, said Kirsten Wollenweber-Portis, the school principal.
But Flores missed the meeting. A one-on-one meeting with the principal didn’t help, so Wollenweber-Portis went to Rodolfo’s house. Accompanying her were the school’s parent liaison and one of the district’s child welfare and attendance workers, whose duties were expanded under a state law that took effect last January to provide support for kids missing school.
Flores said she was overwhelmed caring for Rodolfo and his younger sister. The team brainstormed options and things got a bit better. But Flores said Rodolfo’s morning tantrums persisted — along with the absences and tardies — until the notice arrived last spring ordering them to appear before the district’s Student Attendance Review Board.
State law requires districts to establish these boards, but Pittsburg’s, which meets twice a month, was recognized in the recent state award as particularly effective. Under Frazier-Myers’ guidance, several dozen community members participate. Faith leaders, business owners, mental health counselors and representatives from after-school programs join district and school officials to figure out how to support families so that children show up at school. Laura Delahunt, the county deputy district attorney charged with helping students stay in school is there, too. She will take cases to special courts — one for teens and one for parents of younger students — if all else fails, but Frazier-Myers says that’s rare.
Flores and Rodolfo signed a contract last spring. He pledged to bathe and dress himself in the morning, and to be on time. Flores would take parenting classes. She was grateful and said the classes helped teach her how to reward Rodolfo for good behavior.
So how is Pittsburg Unified doing in turning around chronic absenteeism? That turns out to be a somewhat complicated question.
When the district entered its Student Attendance Review Board in the state competition early this year, it reported a 21 percentage point drop in the number of students deemed chronically absent between fall 2014 and fall 2016. But that was not the rate of chronic absenteeism. To arrive at that rate, the number of students deemed chronically absent is divided by the number of students enrolled in the district for the year. When the district calculated that rate, it showed a much more modest decrease of 2.3 percentage points — from 12.8 percent in 2014-15 to 10.5 percent in the 2016-17 school year.
Complicating matters further, the California Department of Education’s calculated rate for Pittsburg Unified, released last week, shows the 2016-17 tally at 13.6 percent, nearly three percentage points above the state average of 10.8 percent. The state’s numbers don’t match Pittsburg’s because the district counts absence by class period while the state counts by day. So if a student misses the first class, the state would mark him or her absent for the day, while the district waits until the missed classes add up to a full day, said Kopperud, the state attendance review board chairman.
But Kopperud said Pittsburg Unified is doing all the right things. For a high-poverty district, a 2.3 percentage point drop over three years is good. Reversing attendance challenges takes a lot of work and resources. It’s “a big ship to turn around,” one family at a time, he said.
For families like Rodolfo’s, those efforts have made a big difference. Rodolfo’s had no absences this year. That’s down from more than three dozen in 1st grade. His principal, Wollenweber-Portis, is proud. She plans to honor Rodolfo soon at an awards assembly with a special certificate and a medal for “Most Improved Attendance.” And if Rodolfo keeps it up, he and grandma will both be honored at an ice cream social in the spring.
“I’m excited for him and excited for grandma,” Wollenweber-Portis said, “because I know she’s been stressed about it.”