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As the school day ends at Peyton Elementary School in Stockton, Christina Del Prato calls a mother whose daughter was absent 62 times last year. The girl has missed 21 days through the first half of this year, including the past two days.

Del Prato, an attendance case manager, is a key player in an effort being waged across the state to focus not just on students with unexcused absences but on those who are chronically absent, meaning they have missed at least 10 percent of school days for any reason.

California collected and released data on chronic absenteeism from schools for the first time last year as part of its new accountability system. A school’s chronic absenteeism rate could be included as soon as this fall on the districts’ dashboard, which shows how students are doing on multiple measures.

The girl’s mother tells Del Prato her daughter is sick with the flu and a fever, and has a doctor’s note excusing her from school. Del Prato is friendly and understanding, but she reminds the girl’s mother about her daughter’s mounting absences and the attendance contract they all signed to keep her at Peyton instead of transferring her to an alternative school.

If her fever breaks by morning, Del Prato tells the girl’s mother, she needs to come to school.

“She’s missed so much already,” Del Prato tells the mother. “If she still feels bad we can get her home — but send her here.”

The girl was one of more than 7,000 Stockton Unified students who were considered chronically absent in the 2016-17 school year. The district of just under 38,000 students in San Joaquin County has a chronic absentee rate of 19.1 percent — the highest among the state’s 30 largest districts and well above the state average of 10.8 percent — despite employing the kind of strategies that experts recommend to address the root causes of why students don’t come to school.

“The frustrating thing is that even though we’ve improved it, you can look at our rate and it’s still almost twice as high as the state rate,” said Dan Wright, Stockton Unified’s acting superintendent. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”

To understand how some of California’s largest school districts are working to improve student attendance, EdSource talked with education and attendance officials and analyzed chronic absenteeism data for the 30 districts with the highest enrollment in the state. The enrollment totals and rates do not include charters.

As a group, those districts have an average chronic absentee rate of 11.5 percent, only slightly higher than the state average. Sixteen of the districts had chronic absence rates that were higher than the statewide average. (The analysis excludes San Francisco Unified, whose data has been deemed inaccurate by the state. See sidebar.)

Focus shifts from truancy to all absences

California’s largest districts are pursuing a strategy of paying closer attention to chronic absenteeism.

But doing that can be challenging for these districts, because it means dealing with highly personal factors that can lead to absences — from family housing difficulties to chronic health conditions — on a scale of tens of thousands of students.

“You can’t just look at attendance as attendance,” said Sonia Llamas, an assistant superintendent in the Santa Ana Unified School District in Orange County, which had a chronic absence rate of just 6.3 percent. “Attendance is a symptom of a greater issue.”

Policies at the state and federal level have helped drive the shift in focus from unexcused absences to chronic absenteeism, said Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works, which researches chronic absenteeism. Missing 10 percent or more of school days is associated with lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates through the rest of students’ academic careers, the group’s research has found.

Districts must track and address chronic absenteeism in their accountability plans under California’s Local Control Funding Formula and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In December, California released for the first time a database of district and school chronic absence figures from the 2016-17 school year. The statistic could be among the measures included in the state’s dashboard of student performance measures as soon as the fall of 2018.

The school dashboard debuted last year as a key element of the state’s school accountability and improvement system. It reports the performance of schools and districts, including data on a dozen student groups, and is based on several indicators, including suspension and graduation rates, test scores, performance of English learners and high school students’ readiness for college and careers. 

While Stockton had the highest percentage of chronically absent students among the 30 largest districts, many smaller districts have higher rates; Stockton ranks 149th overall in chronic absenteeism out of 985 California districts included in a database provided by the state Department of Education.

Chronic absenteeism is typically higher at districts that serve larger numbers of low-income students, a correlation that was true among the state’s large districts as well.

In Stockton Unified, with a chronic absentee rate of 19.1 percent, more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, while just 3.8 percent of students fell into that category in San Ramon Valley Unified in Contra Costa County, which had the lowest absentee rate at 4.6 percent among the state’s 30 largest school districts.

Santa Ana Unified bucks that trend — its chronic absence rate was the fifth-lowest among those districts, even though just over 90 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Llamas, the district’s assistant superintendent for school performance and culture, said reducing chronic absenteeism has been a district focus for the past six years. Principals track attendance data to spot trends among students, and the district has hired eight new employees to work on the problem as community liaisons, focusing on the broader factors that can lead to absences.

Districts turn to staff, data, education

Chang, the Attendance Works executive director, said additional money many districts have received as a result of the Local Control Funding Formula has allowed many districts, particularly those serving low-income students, to bolster support staff in general and attendance-focused staff in particular.

Fresno Unified in the Central Valley  with an 18 percent chronic absentee rate, ranked second among the 30 largest districts used the money it received to grow its attendance department from six employees four years ago to nearly 40 today, attendance coordinator Kristi Jackson said.

“They really invested in intervention,” Jackson said.

Over the last three years, Los Angeles Unified has hired hundreds of new pupil services and attendance counselors, doubling the size of that department to about 600 people, said Michelle Castelo Alferes, the district’s director of pupil services. Los Angeles Unified — California’s largest district, with more than 500,000 students — had a chronic absence rate of 12.4 percent last year, slightly higher than the statewide average of 10.8 percent.

Stockton and other districts also engage in targeted strategies for educating parents about the importance of attendance: reaching out to families of incoming students, those who have been chronically absent in the past or those who have missed large amounts of school around the holidays, when families may take long trips to visit relatives out of the country.

“We tell them, first: Every one day that they miss, it takes two or three days to catch up,” said Del Prato, who works in Stockton Unified’s Child Welfare and Attendance Department. “Feeling lost in school can make a child feel really defeated, so to have them here and exposed to instruction is key.”

Relationships ultimately key

Chang warned, though, that educating parents is the “easy win.” What’s harder, she said, is addressing the other factors that can keep students out of school. Del Prato and Wright listed a wide range of barriers that can affect attendance: Families that move across town, addicted parents too intoxicated to drive to school and neighborhoods that lack sidewalks, forcing students to walk in traffic, to name a few.

Chang said districts must develop plans to reduce those barriers and should also work to give students a reason to come to school, by forging meaningful relationships with teachers and staff members there.

“It’s the relationships which are so key to motivating kids to show up,” Chang said. “Ultimately, you have to improve the experience of the kid and their family at school to improve attendance.”

Back at Peyton Elementary, Del Prato checks in with a 7th-grader. The girl only has five absences this year, down from 40 last year, but two of them came in the last week.

Del Prato has just learned from Peyton’s principal that the girl’s recent absences were a result of problems involving her mother and a new boyfriend. Police eventually brought the girl to school.

Staff members at Peyton reward students who meet their attendance goals with prizes — younger children might get a toy, older ones a Frappuccino from Starbucks.

As the 7th-grader sits down, Del Prato complements her earrings and keeps her questions general.

Eventually, she asks. “Do you want to share something bad?”

“Family,” the girl says. She doesn’t want to get into it now, so she and Del Prato agree to talk more in a couple of days.

Del Prato tells the girl she knows it wasn’t her choice to miss school those two days. She’s still on track for a Frappuccino.

“I appreciate you just getting here,” she tells the girl, “because I know it’s not easy.”

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  1. Silvia Young 10 months ago10 months ago

    1in10 girls have a debilitating, invisible disease that is misdiagnosed. Endometriosis is a body-wide inflammation triggered by hormones, stress, diet, toxins. Menstruation anxiety and depression is REAL. Please also research PMDD. Girls are missing school, becoming more isolated, while navigating an abundance of estrogen, it's a lethal combination. Our patient community has resources available. We can bring these girls back into society by education. Teachers, students, parents, PTA, School nurses, health science, and more. … Read More

    1in10 girls have a debilitating, invisible disease that is misdiagnosed. Endometriosis is a body-wide inflammation triggered by hormones, stress, diet, toxins. Menstruation anxiety and depression is REAL. Please also research PMDD. Girls are missing school, becoming more isolated, while navigating an abundance of estrogen, it’s a lethal combination.
    Our patient community has resources available.
    We can bring these girls back into society by education.
    Teachers, students, parents, PTA, School nurses, health science, and more. The societal shame is deep, each girl that speaks up is extremely brave.

  2. Nicole Pearlstein 10 months ago10 months ago

    1 out of 10 women and girls suffers from endometriosis. As a sufferer, a mom of a 15-year-old daughter also with the disease, and the NE endometriosis advocate, I can honestly say missing school due to pelvic pain is devastating for young girls. Not only does it affect their academic learning, but it impacts their fragile social lives. Many girls find themselves feeling isolated and misunderstood by peers and teachers alike. This, … Read More

    1 out of 10 women and girls suffers from endometriosis. As a sufferer, a mom of a 15-year-old daughter also with the disease, and the NE endometriosis advocate, I can honestly say missing school due to pelvic pain is devastating for young girls. Not only does it affect their academic learning, but it impacts their fragile social lives. Many girls find themselves feeling isolated and misunderstood by peers and teachers alike. This, especially if the pain has not been adequately treated or diagnosed. The work of ENDOWHAT’s school nurse initiative is trying to change this: https://www.endowhat.com/school-nurse-initiative/

    We are working to educate school nurses across the country about the devastating impact of endometriosis on young women. An interesting perspective to share by one of the leading endometriosis surgeons in New England, Dr. Malcolm Mackenzie. One of many tools (including surgery) he uses to diagnose endometriosis in young girls is how much school they missed in middle school… food for thought.

  3. Jim Stoch 10 months ago10 months ago

    To fully address and start to fix the absenteeism issue, we must get to the root causes, many listed in this article. "Unstable" family situation, lack of money, housing concerns, etc. But we need to assess how much of absenteeism is due to a lack of interest in school because students don't see it helping them get out of their problematic lifestyles. I worked in the attendance office of a working-class high school, back … Read More

    To fully address and start to fix the absenteeism issue, we must get to the root causes, many listed in this article. “Unstable” family situation, lack of money, housing concerns, etc. But we need to assess how much of absenteeism is due to a lack of interest in school because students don’t see it helping them get out of their problematic lifestyles. I worked in the attendance office of a working-class high school, back in the 70’s and haven’t worked in a high school since the 80’s. However, I would bet that many kids simply don’t want to be in school because it’s “boring, not relevant to what I want to do, or why do I need to study these subjects? How will they help me in life?” Career education, started in kindergarten, can build work ethic, soft skills employers demand, provide career exploration, career interest and ability testing to all students in all types of school systems, and at all socioeconomic levels. Like CTE, but starting much earlier, it guides and counsels students to a career path that fits their needs, abilities and interests. Students are motivated to be in school. Students that see a path to the lifestyle they want and can obtain, will not drop out and will want to be in school. Wrap support services around career education and the next generation of adults will be less likely to be in jail, on public assistance and will be productive, contributing citizens. We would have to start now and be patient for results, but the result would reduce the need to put bandaids on a problem that will only get worse if we don’t start pointing kids toward high wage/high need occupations. Show them the money.

  4. Dr. Brad Huff 10 months ago10 months ago

    During NCLB I did a significant amount of online tutoring in mathematics to students in Title 1 schools. It became very clear these children were behind because of absences. What caused these absences is a chaotic home environment, living with relatives or in foster care, and, basically, POVERTY.

  5. el 10 months ago10 months ago

    This is such a thorny issue and I think it's valuable that this data is being collected and recognized. I think we also have to remember it's a source of questions and not of answers. I am skeptical that calling up parents and harassing them to get their kids to school when they have the flu and a doctor's note is helpful for student achievement or even for school attendance rate. I mean, maybe, but it's … Read More

    This is such a thorny issue and I think it’s valuable that this data is being collected and recognized. I think we also have to remember it’s a source of questions and not of answers.

    I am skeptical that calling up parents and harassing them to get their kids to school when they have the flu and a doctor’s note is helpful for student achievement or even for school attendance rate. I mean, maybe, but it’s also possible that the student will be unable to concentrate and meanwhile helpfully spread virus to a new batch of students who will in turn miss school.

    Science tells us that these nasty flus can last 2-3 weeks, and indeed kids (and adults) have even died this flu season. One bout with flu and you’re chronically absent.

    On the other hand, certainly many kids are absent when their own health doesn’t need them to be, or maybe they need help improving their health (mental or physical) so they can attend. Every situation is different. And a chronic absenteeism rate can indicate a school that is unfriendly, imposing, and full of bullies, things that are hard to handle when you’re feeling well and impossible when you’re sick, as well as difficult family situations. I appreciate the need to follow up on these cases and look for corrective measures.

    Missing 10 percent or more of school days is associated with lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates through the rest of students’ academic careers, the group’s research has found.

    This is absolutely true, but we shouldn’t assume that it is definitively causal in the sense that simply delivering those kids to school is the solution that will improve their achievement. Kids who are chronically ill of course have trouble getting their work done; some districts have policies where if you miss more than X days you will fail the class even if your work is up to date and high quality. Kids who are flailing and experience each day as a failure may no longer be mentally able to engage in school. Classes where participation is a high part of the grade may have rubrics that keep a student with many absences or (perhaps worse) a depressed affect from being successful. What we really need to do is figure out the underlying cause for those absences and figure out how to address them, and then give kids a realistic opportunity to make up and remediate the missed work.

    So, to sum up: focusing on these cases with empathy and an open mind is a really good idea. Yelling at parents to just get them to school no matter what because that will fix everything is not.