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Rural California: An Education Divide

EdSource Special Report

Lost days: Poverty, isolation drive students away from school in California’s rural districts

Above: California high schools can begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. now that SB 328 is in effect. Some districts have found it's saved them money.

The state's highest rates of chronic absenteeism are in rural areas.


Photography by Julie Leopo

It was a wonder Kaylee Adkins ever made it to school.

The daughter of two heavy drug users, she lived a transient childhood — rarely staying for long in the same apartment, let alone the same school. She hardly saw her father who was in jail or prison throughout much of her childhood.

Lost Days: Chronic student absenteeism in rural California

May 30: Part 1: Lost days: Poverty, isolation drive chronic absenteeism in California’s rural school districts
May 31: Part 2: Lost days: Inside one rural California district’s effort to combat chronic absenteeism

Produced by EdSource: David Washburn, reporter; Julie Leopo, photographer; Jennifer Molina, videographer; Yuxuan Xie, data visualization specialist; Daniel J. Willis, data analyst; Justin Allen, web designer; Andrew Reed, social media; Rose Ciotta, project editor; Denise Zapata, co-editor.

Kaylee’s circumstances caused her to routinely miss school days from the time she was in kindergarten through her high school years. The state now identifies students like her, who miss at least 10 percent of the school year, as “chronically absent.” It’s a problem that impacts school districts everywhere but is most acute in rural areas and small towns.

When Kaylee, now 20, was in grade school, her mother’s pattern was to stay in a place until the eviction notice came, then run. Sometimes it would be to another part of Oroville, a rural town of about 15,000 people in Northern California’s Butte County where her family was from. Other times it would be out of state to small towns in Texas or West Virginia.

Both of Kaylee’s parents died during her high school years and she ended up living with one of her older sisters, who had a teenage daughter about Kaylee’s age who had two young kids of her own. That made Kaylee a great aunt at the age of 16 and she was expected to stay home to take care of the children.

Though they lived just a few blocks from Las Plumas High in the Oroville Union High School District, Kaylee missed all or part of 54 days — nearly a third of her senior year, her attendance records show.

Lost Days: A journey into chronic absenteeism in rural Butte County, California

View EdSource’s video story on how isolation and poverty drive high rates of chronic absenteeism in rural Butte County, California.

“I was always like one step behind,” Kaylee said in a recent interview. “Going to school was always dependent on what my family needed.”

She was among the 26 percent, or about 600 students, at Oroville Union High School District who were chronically absent during the 2017-18 school year, according to an EdSource analysis of California Department of Education data.

Statewide, more than 700,000 students, or about 11 percent, were chronically absent. About 10 percent of the 1,000 districts statewide had rates near the level of Oroville Union High’s or significantly higher. Most of those districts were in rural areas, the analysis found:

Students who are regularly missing school can be found in cities, suburbs and small towns throughout California and the United States.

Chronic absenteeism takes a toll on almost all aspects of student success and wellbeing, according to a large body of research. A student can fall significantly behind in their classwork after missing just a week.

As more time is missed, the connections to school begin to fray. Students become more likely to use drugs and engage in other unhealthy behaviors, the research shows. And in the end, they are more likely to drop out.

A call to action

These realities have been present in California’s rural districts for decades, yet only recently became visible to educators, parents and youth advocates.

Mapping chronic absenteeism

View EdSource’s interactive map of chronic absenteeism rates to see how they are concentrated in rural California.

The state has long tracked schools’ truancy rates, but that only accounts for unexcused absences. It wasn’t until the 2016-17 school year that the state started reporting details on all absences –  unexcused, excused and those due to suspension.

The state used that information to generate a chronic absenteeism rate and included it on the California School Dashboard, the statewide report card for schools. On the state dashboard, schools with chronic absenteeism rates ranging from more than 10 percent to 20 percent are labeled as “high.” Rates above 20 percent are considered “very high.”

But the state only releases the overall rate, not the breakdowns showing why students were absent. The Oroville Union High School District provided EdSource its records, which showed what’s behind the district’s 26 percent chronic absenteeism rate: 64 percent of days missed by district students in 2017-18 were unexcused, while 29 percent were due to excused absences, like illness and out-school suspensions. The rest were days missed due to in-school suspensions and independent study.

The state’s action to collect more information on why students were missing school came after more than a decade of advocacy on the issue, most notably by Hedy Chang and her San Francisco-based organization, Attendance Works. Chang sees absenteeism as a serious threat to student achievement in every school, but she worries particularly about how it has overwhelmed rural communities.

“It’s only in the past year and a half that people have realized they have a problem,” Chang said. “And in rural areas they have the fewest resources and the least access to the newest information about how to combat this.”

Educators and advocates in Butte County and a growing number of areas in rural California have become leaders statewide in the search for solutions. They formed a multi-county coalition called the Rural Education Network and made chronic absenteeism one of its signature issues.

The Butte County Office of Education, along with its counterpart in Orange County and the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, is leading a project, funded by a $15-million state grant, to develop programs and strategies aimed at creating better school climates and keeping students in school.

Yet, these efforts remain in their infancy. And those who are confronting the problem, whether in the classroom or in Sacramento, say they are still feeling their way in a fight against a complex and multi-layered foe.

The battle has become even more difficult in Butte County since November, when the Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise and neighboring communities. The wildfire killed 85 people, making it the deadliest in California history. It also destroyed or badly damaged several schools in the Paradise Unified School District and a handful of charter schools.

The tragedy upended the school lives of thousands of students and families leaving many traumatized, scrambling for not only which school to attend but where to sleep.

Matt Reddam, licensed therapist and childhood trauma expert, works with students through a contract with the Butte County Office of Education.

“We were already hurting for school-based interventions for mental health…How do we deal with absenteeism? How do we deal with a growing sense of students not feeling a part of their system and their community?” said Matt Reddam, a consulting trauma therapist with the Butte County Office of Education. “And the fires really just magnified that.”

On the surface, explanations of why students don’t come to school can be as simple as the logistics of living in far-flung places and the challenges of getting students to and from school. But also contributing are socioeconomic conditions in rural communities that have deteriorated in recent decades and, in certain remote areas, a long-held cultural distrust of schools and other institutions among residents.

Butte County, located about 80 miles north of Sacramento and with over half of its population living in small towns or remote communities, is in the heart of rural California.

Starting in the Gold Rush years and lasting into the early 20th century, natural beauty and robust mining and timber industries brought newcomers in droves. By the 1980s these industries were in decline, sapping the area’s economic vitality and opening the door for drugs, higher crime rates and other urban ills that rural areas were once immune to.

Butte lags the state averages in most measures of socioeconomic health. It has higher rates of unemployment, poverty and single parent households; a lower median income and a smaller percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees, according to Federal Reserve data and U.S. Census estimates.

Butte leads all California counties in reports of what are known as “adverse childhood experiences,” which can include everything from a divorce or a death in the immediate family to parental drug use and physical and sexual abuse.

Kaylee’s story

Oroville, where Las Plumas High is located and Kaylee Adkins spent most of her childhood, shows the stresses of poverty and crime.

Its 20 percent poverty rate among families is nearly twice the statewide number, according to Census estimates. And it has the highest crime rate of any California city with more than 15,000 people, according to an EdSource analysis of 2017 FBI Uniform Crime Report data.

As the youngest of seven by nearly a decade, Kaylee watched as her father and then her four brothers were arrested for drug crimes and theft. Her two sisters, like her mother, got pregnant in their teens and dropped out.

A home in Oroville, California.

Kaylee says she felt like an afterthought throughout most of her childhood. Her mother’s drug addictions got in the way of basic parental duties like taking her to school or picking her up.

“I remember just wanting to have parents who were there,” Kaylee said. “I wanted them to take me to the park and take me to Disneyland. I just wanted to do those kinds of things.”

There were times when the police would come and force Kaylee’s mother to put her in school, she said. But that would often only last until the next move. At one point, she was sent to foster care.

When Kaylee was 15, her mother died after a short battle with lung cancer. But before she died, she made Kaylee promise her that she would be the first person in the family to graduate from high school.

“I pushed so hard to graduate because when my mom was sick that’s all she wanted me to do,” Kaylee said.

No more ‘mad mother’

The poverty over generations that afflicts Kaylee’s family touches every corner of Butte County and is something Bobby Jones deals with on a daily basis. As the director of the African-American Family Cultural Center, Jones works on prevention efforts to help all students avoid the traps of substance abuse and crime.

African-American students make up a small proportion of Oroville Union High’s enrollment — just over 4 percent — but they make up a disproportionate share of chronically absent students: 36 percent compared to 26 percent for all students, according to the state data.

“You look at the dynamic of Oroville itself, starting with the crack epidemic of the 1980s and now with the opiates, and it’s just a lost generation out here,” Jones said.

Jones offers direct and early intervention as a member of the school attendance review boards, known as SARBs, for both the Oroville Union High and Oroville City Elementary districts.

Students can be referred to an attendance review board after their third unexcused absence. Parents get multiple letters and if needed, an invitation to appear before the board. In relatively rare cases, in which parents are refusing to cooperate, state law allows districts to refer them for prosecution.

Jones said he is often taken aback by the reactions from parents who are brought before the review boards. “It seems like a lot of the time the parents just don’t care,” he said. “It’s so sad.”

Sheri Hanni, the School Attendance Review Board coordinator for the Butte County Office of Education, in front of one of the agency’s locations.

Sheri Hanni is the Butte County Office of Education’s SARB coordinator and serves as an overseer of the county’s district boards. She’s a 25-year veteran of the office and has over the decades spent more time than perhaps anyone else in Butte County dealing with these parents and trying to get their children back in school.

She says she’s come to realize that punishing students and parents usually makes things worse — further alienating families who already feel like outsiders.

“For so many years we’ve taken the ‘mad mother’ approach,” Hanni said, mimicking a mother shaking her finger at a misbehaving child. “If that approach was going to work, it would have worked by now.”

The mad mother approach doesn’t go far in the Golden Feather Union Elementary School District, which serves several of the communities scattered in the mountains north of Oroville that are collectively referred to as “the ridge” by locals.

The district, which is composed of Concow Elementary, a K-8 school, and a continuation high school for at-risk students, enrolled 250 students for the entire 2017-18 school year, state records show. Half of them were chronically absent, according to the EdSource analysis, which is the sixth-highest rate in the state. Many of the families face the same problems of poverty and drugs seen in Oroville.

Josh Peete, who is both the district’s superintendent and principal of Concow Elementary, describes how his students turn into no-shows.

First off, the school bus is the only reliable transportation option for many Concow students and the ride can be 30 minutes or more. So, missing the school bus can easily mean missing a day of school. In other instances, a family trip into town leads to a lost school day, Peete said.

“Sometimes they’ll have a big day of shopping or taking care of family issues and won’t be able to pick their kids up after school,” Peete said. “So, we’ve got families basically sending their kids to school when they can.”

Annie is in 5th grade at Concow Elementary and though she’s had her ups and downs, she generally likes going to school. She speaks with pride about the trophy she earned for perfect attendance during the 2015-16 school year.

But when Annie graduates from the 8th grade, she said she wants to follow in the footsteps of her uncle and her sisters and be home schooled rather than go to high school in Oroville, where students from the ridge communities are often ostracized.

“Some of the Concow kids, they get bullied because they are different,” she said. “Some of them aren’t able to take showers every night, do their hair all the time…some of us, why we live in Concow is we aren’t very rich and it isn’t the most expensive place.”

The search for solutions

Reddam, the trauma therapist,  said he regularly hears students express similar misgivings about school as Annie does.

“What we see is that children’s experiences in education are associated with failure, with a sense of not belonging, with the sense of not being understood,” Reddam said.

The $15 million state-funded project to improve school climates and keep students in school will design programs to prepare teachers and administrators in restorative justice, social emotional learning and other supports that emphasize mediating conflicts and building healthy relationships in schools. If done right, the programs will lead to schools where the bullying Annie fears rarely happens.

If there are any positives coming out of the fire that swept through Butte County last November, it is that resources, including from many mental health professionals, have poured into the region to help with the recovery.

Yet, those in the trenches acknowledge that nothing happens unless they meet their students where they are.

Over the years, Kaylee got used to the eye rolls and brush-offs from some of her teachers when she’d come back from long absences. But things were different at Las Plumas.

Dan Ramos, the school’s principal, wanted to help her. And so did her guidance counselor, who she said was always checking in to see how things were going. Kaylee benefited from the kindness of teachers like Bethany Dorin, who had Kaylee for anatomy and biology.

“I would struggle sometimes in her classes, but she’d always take extra time to help as much as she could,” Kaylee said.

Dorin said she mentors anywhere from three to five students like Kaylee each year. She admits that it can “feel a little impossible to know how to move forward” with these students.

“It’s hard not to feel resentful of the situation,” Dorin said. “And it’s hard not to immediately judge that student and immediately judge that family.”

But Dorin stuck with Kaylee, mainly because she admired her honesty and her grit.

“She didn’t have a lot of shame, you know,” Dorin said. “Kaylee would come up and just blurt it all out. But then she would listen and ask questions until she realized ‘my gosh, I can get a good grade.’”

Kaylee graduated last June. And now is enrolled in Butte College, the local community college, with hopes of becoming a dental hygienist.

“My mom would be proud of me,” she said.

Tomorrow: Paradise Unified’s Dena Kapsalis does whatever it takes to get students to school.

The California Endowment, the USC Center for Health Journalism’s Data Fellowship and the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship provided funding and support for this project.

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  1. Destiny S Hamlett 4 years ago4 years ago

    I have papers showing how many times Concow School suspended my child. Over half were after the fire.

  2. Doug 4 years ago4 years ago

    Extremely well researched and written story…and so depressing when you consider the downstream effect of an inadequately educated population on our nation’s overall well being.

  3. Mimi Klepach 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thank you, soooo much for this article!! We live in Siskiyou County, even more rural than Butte County, in Fort Jones. My daughter, Annie, is a junior at Etna High, 20 miles away. I am college educated and Annie is very bright, but life circumstance still makes Annie chronically absent and, as we end this school year, Annie feels like her teachers hate her. Annie has had several medical issues which have … Read More

    Thank you, soooo much for this article!! We live in Siskiyou County, even more rural than Butte County, in Fort Jones. My daughter, Annie, is a junior at Etna High, 20 miles away. I am college educated and Annie is very bright, but life circumstance still makes Annie chronically absent and, as we end this school year, Annie feels like her teachers hate her.

    Annie has had several medical issues which have lead to multiple medical appointments. Since medical help is at least 20 miles away and dental is 90 miles away, Annie often misses full days of school for medical reasons. Those may be considered excused absences, but the school staff is not supportive and other alternatives are not available. Etna High has not had the opportunity to hire highly qualified teachers; they hire who they can get and several of the teachers have long known reputations of being rude and demeaning to students. Annie gets the brunt of this treatment because of her absences.

    As we close out her junior year, Annie is weighing her treatment in the classroom against those things she really likes, playing sports and her friends. She may choose to drop out, find an alternative way to finish high school. It’s a loss for Annie regardless of her decision, but the status quo is only subjecting Annie to further abuse by teachers who are callous, uncaring, and too rigid to assist Annie stay caught up. In spite of it all, Annie currently has a GPA of 3.5. Unfortunately, she started this year with a GPA of 3.9.


    • el 4 years ago4 years ago

      I appreciate your real life commentary that helps illuminate the wide range of the issue. There's a real mix of kids in crisis who are not getting to school and who really need to be there and kids in less crisis who are missing a lot of school for various reasons. It's a little frustrating and misleading, I think, for the absence statistics to be all grouped together such that a kid dealing with illness … Read More

      I appreciate your real life commentary that helps illuminate the wide range of the issue. There’s a real mix of kids in crisis who are not getting to school and who really need to be there and kids in less crisis who are missing a lot of school for various reasons. It’s a little frustrating and misleading, I think, for the absence statistics to be all grouped together such that a kid dealing with illness is grouped the same as a kid who is truant without the parents’ knowledge versus other reasons makes it harder for us to really see what’s going on without discussing individual students – which is generally a thing we can’t and shouldn’t do.

      In my county, there’s an orthodontist that serves kids over a 1 hour plus driving radius. There’s a sign that irritates me every time I’ve seen it, which is basically that no, they don’t have after school/after hours appointments and stop asking; your kid will just have to miss school. That’s potentially 9 absences right there if the child goes once a month. We really can’t do better than this?

      We can also look at incentives: having draconian policies for tardies can add to this as well. I certainly appreciate that tardy students are a disruption, but I’ve seen on multiple occasions stricter discipline for a tardy than an absence. I would hope that if we’re doing our jobs that by high school the kids are clever enough to game out the situation and stay home. Zero tolerance for late homework can have a similar impact.

      Staff should also consider how they interact with kids who return after a long absence. If the first thing that happens is that they’re pulled out of class for some uncomfortable meetings, it might be that this makes it harder for kids to return.

      For kids with health issues, being in school can be very hard and exhausting. It can be a challenge to do a day at school – where you have no control over your environment – and then several hours of homework after. There’s not really a plan that works for kids in a long term chronic illness situation that saps concentration and energy. Schools that are physically uncomfortable (poor ventilation, uncomfortable furniture, too hot, too cold) only add to this.

      Coming to school is important but mastering the material is also important. Most kids can’t master the material without being in class. For those that can, we should consider them successes, however it is achieved.

      I think the absenteeism rate and the chronic absenteeism rate are useful indicators for schools and important to track. I think it’s good that we’re putting a lot of attention to it. Having a high absenteeism rate is certainly financially expensive for schools because of the way we fund. I think it’s important to recognize that some can be mitigated but some of the issues are outside of the control of any school staff. Small schools can be heavily impacted by just one or two large families that don’t get their kids to school. Schools with lower absenteeism rates for similar populations and conditions are probably doing something right that we should all celebrate and copy the best that we can – it suggests the kids are personally motivated to get to school and find value in being there.

      Finally, I’m really sorry your daughter doesn’t feel appreciated, comfortable, and safe with her teachers. That’s something no child should have to face.

  4. Jill V 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thank You for investigating and writing this article and series! I have been a parent and school employee here on the Ridge since 2003 and have seen this unfold. I am currently working with Dena in one area of positive behavior and support school wide for staff and students and families. I am dedicated to supporting my community and our kiddos now more than ever. The Campfire poses even more challenges but together we can be resilient!

  5. Estelle Dahl 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thank you for a well written article that addresses a critical issue. However, what also needs to be addressed is how teachers, schools, and even entire districts are labeled failures when they are unable to work miracles no matter how hard they try. Some teachers have a much tougher job than others. Kudos to them for working so hard in the face of great challenges!

  6. Terry 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thank you! I grew up and continue to live in Oroville. I also taught and was an administrator there for many years. What students in rural communities need are teachers and administrators who care, and are willing to go the extra mile. My mother was a teacher, and she always kept soap, deodorant and lotion in her classroom for students to use. If their clothes were dirty, she encouraged them to … Read More

    Thank you! I grew up and continue to live in Oroville. I also taught and was an administrator there for many years. What students in rural communities need are teachers and administrators who care, and are willing to go the extra mile. My mother was a teacher, and she always kept soap, deodorant and lotion in her classroom for students to use. If their clothes were dirty, she encouraged them to bring a spare set and worked with the PE staff to access the washing machines and dryers so the students would have clean clothing and wouldn’t be teased. I have helped students sign up for public transportation, access food and basic necessities, and implemented after-school programs so they can stay up on their homework. It’s challenging but not impossible! Education is the ticket out of poverty and the more we support struggling students to graduate and go on to college/career programs, the better the outcomes for the student and the community!

  7. Carl Cohn 4 years ago4 years ago

    Kudos to EdSource and it’s funders for shining a light on the plight of kids and families in California’s rural school districts. During my time as the founding executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE), I was embarrassed about my lack of knowledge regarding the challenges faced by the heroic educators in these forgotten corners of our state.

  8. CarolineSF 4 years ago4 years ago

    So how does this thoughtful report jibe with the massive push from the education “reform” sector to blame and punish teachers and schools for student absences? (Which, by the way, probably accounts for the negative attitude Kaylee encountered from some teachers over her attendance gaps.)

  9. William McDermott, Ph. D. 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thank you for bringing this to print! As a long time retired Superintendent that spent 20 years in rural counties like Fresno and Kern it is nice to see the recognition that these students face unbelievable hardships in trying to gain their education. As an added comment the fact that busing is still voluntary in these districts is obscene! Let’s add the phenomenal distances for basic services to the list of added hardships to enter these students daily lives!