Chronic absence rates high at many California continuation schools

April 1, 2018

Boynton High School in San Jose has been named one of California's Model Continuation High Schools. But like at many continuation schools, the rate of chronic absenteeism among Boynton students is much higher than it is at traditional high schools nearby.

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California’s continuation high schools are meant to give students a last chance to get back on track for graduation, but state data reveal that many of the schools struggle with a basic challenge: Getting students to attend each day.

Nearly 60 percent of continuation high school students were considered chronically absent during the 2016-17 school year, according to an EdSource analysis of state data. At 59.6 percent, the average chronic absence rate at continuation high schools is 4 times higher than the average among all California high schools, and 5 1/2 times greater than the state average for all schools.

The high levels of absenteeism at continuation schools illustrate how difficult it can be for school officials even in these specialized settings to reach some of the state’s most vulnerable students. A continuation school is an alternative high school for students 16 or older who are at risk of not graduating, often because they have fallen behind in credits.

The absenteeism rates also indicate that large numbers of continuation schools are failing to change the poor attendance habits many students developed at their previous schools, making it impossible to reverse their academic trajectory, said Russell Rumberger, an emeritus professor at UC Santa Barbara and director of the California Dropout Research Project.

“Attendance, as we know, is a strong predictor in terms of dropping out and not graduating,” Rumberger said. “Getting them in the door isn’t a guarantee that they’re going to get out the door with a diploma, but it’s a necessary first step.”

A student is defined as chronically absent if he or she misses 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, including excused absences such as those for illness. With most schools offering 180 instructional days, a student would have to miss 18 days, or an overage of 2 per month, to be chronically absent.

While the rates of absenteeism at continuation schools are much higher than at traditional ones, experts on alternative education caution against such direct comparisons, noting the student bodies at continuation schools consist of students likely to have poor attendance: At-risk teens who have been struggling academically.

“They would not be in a continuation high school if they did not have issues in the traditional school environment,” said Alysse Castro, who oversees San Francisco Unified’s continuation schools. Chronic absence rates at those two schools, Ida B. Wells High and Downtown High, were 68.4 percent and 90.5 percent, respectively, according to the database. “That’s the nature of having a school that is targeted at that population.”

Schools encourage attendance, but rates remain high

Boynton High School in San Jose is one of 441 continuation schools in California. The state in December released chronic absenteeism data that includes results for 424 of those schools, which enrolled as many as 90,000 students during the 2016-17 school year.

The California Department of Education last year named Boynton, where enrollment hovers around 200 students, one of the state’s Model Continuation High Schools. The school has implemented many of the strategies recommended to reduce absences, such as an orientation program for incoming students and their families that stresses the importance of coming to school each day. It also rewards students for good attendance — each time a student goes a week with no absences, they can pick out a treat from a snack cupboard filled with bags of chips and cups of instant noodles.

Standing in Boynton’s courtyard on a recent Monday morning, Principal Sarah Thomas could tell attendance was low as she watched students shuffle between classes.

While Boynton’s chronic absenteeism rate of 44.8 percent in 2016-17 was lower than those of most continuation schools, it was by far the highest chronic absenteeism rate in the Campbell Union High School District, which extends into San Jose. The next-highest rate, at the traditional campus Del Mar High, was 13.1 percent

“If kids have a safe place to go to school, if they know they have adults they can count on, they know they won’t be judged, I do think it makes a difference,” Thomas said. “But I don’t think it’s ever going to make 100 percent difference.”

Students at Boynton High School in San Jose return to class after claiming their rewards for a week of perfect attendance.

At Broadway High School, another designated model continuation school a few miles from Boynton in San Jose, Principal Giovanni Bui said his school seeks to address the root causes of students’ absences. Consistent attendance can be a challenge for some students, such as teen mothers who miss time for doctor appointments and students who commute over an hour on buses to get to school.

Still, Bui said, “apathy and motivation” is a consistent challenge for Broadway to address. The school’s chronic absenteeism rate was 66.1 percent in 2016-17, according to the state database.

“We’ll always have a handful of kids who are just not showing up,” Bui said.

Questions about data from continuation schools

The eye-catching rates at continuation schools come with some caveats.

The California Department of Education is looking into potential errors in its database of chronic absenteeism rates. Some 200 schools statewide, including eight continuation schools, submitted reports for the database claiming all of their students had perfect attendance, prompting the state to send out letters asking districts to re-check their data.

In addition, seven continuation schools told EdSource that the chronic absentee rates listed for them in the state database were incorrect.

State Department of Education officials have acknowledged that the methods used to calculate attendance at alternative schools could lead to errors in their absenteeism rates, because many of those schools measure their attendance in different units than traditional schools. But officials said they have not conducted an in-depth analysis of their data to see if there are widespread problems with it.

Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, associate director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities at Stanford University, also questioned whether chronic absenteeism is a statistic that captures how successful a continuation school is with its students.

Both Ruiz de Velasco and Castro, the San Francisco Unified official, noted continuation high schools often enroll students who missed far more than the statistic’s threshold of 10 percent of class days at their previous school. A school could reduce a student’s absences from half of all school days to just 15 percent of days, for instance, and not be credited for that improvement because the student is still absent more than 10 percent of the time, Castro said.

“They are being enormously successful … but they’re still qualifying as chronically absent,” Castro said.

California education officials are working toward adding chronic absenteeism to the list of metrics included on the state’s accountability dashboard as soon as this fall. The state released absentee data from more than 10,000 schools for the first time last December.

Alternative schools don’t currently appear on the dashboard, but the state is developing a set of accountability standards for them, which officials are expected to debut before the end of 2018, that take into account the populations those schools serve.

Ruiz de Velasco, who is directing a task force to develop recommendations for the accountability standards, said he expects the state will use chronic absenteeism as one of its metrics to measure the performance of students at alternative schools. Ruiz de Velasco said the dashboard will seek to reward schools for improvement in areas such as attendance and college or career readiness.

“We’re going to start from where you are and we’re going to reward you for growing and accelerating and moving toward the standard,” he said.

Schools need the best teachers

Continuation schools with low chronic absence rates credit highly engaged teachers and orientation programs that aim to get new students off on the right foot. Daniel Barajas, principal of Valley High School in Escondido in Southern California, where just 13.9 percent of students were chronically absent, said the key is to get students who have been discouraged in the past to see the benefit of school.

“We really work from a place of love and support,” Barajas said.

Given the population continuation high schools serve, experts say it’s crucial for districts to give those schools the resources and quality staff they need. That often has not been the case, though, according to Elsbeth Prigmore, who oversees alternative education in the Shasta Union High School District.

Because continuation schools are often small and tend to serve students from low-income backgrounds whose families wield less political power, Prigmore said district officials may be less inclined to make them a priority.

“It’s a matter of equity, that kids are not put in a position where they have the best opportunity for success,” she said.

One measure is where teachers are assigned. Prigmore said some districts have steered under-performing teachers to continuation schools, a practice Thomas said happened at Boynton in the past, but has since stopped. 

“The mindset has definitely changed, and teachers are here because they’re truly interested in working with at-risk youth,” Thomas said. “They’re not looking for the easy way out. It’s a lot of work to try to teach the kind of kid that is here.”

Thomas said teachers are key to improving student attendance. Boynton students start four school days each week in an advisory period with a teacher who becomes their point person, joining them for transcript reviews every six weeks to check in on their path to a diploma and making calls home when the student misses class.

“It’s almost like they’re case-managing their 15 students,” Thomas said.

One Boynton teacher applied for grants and scraped together donated equipment to build a music studio in his classroom’s closet, where students learn audio production software. Another draws on his background as a refugee and love of Bay Area sports to connect with struggling young people.

“The environment and the people are a lot more friendly” at Boynton, said Larry Jackson, a student who enrolled there after falling behind in credits at nearby Prospect High School. “The teachers are a lot nicer, a lot cooler too — they just kind of get the students.”

Another Boynton student, Samantha Lowe, said the environment there has helped get her to school after she missed “a lot” of days at the traditional high schools she previously attended.

“Before it was, I didn’t want to go because I was stressed or … I didn’t get something done,” Lowe said. “Now it’s, ‘I got everything done, I have the support I need.’”

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