A new survey of truancy in California elementary schools links race and poverty to missing lots of school. The study also found the highest number of absences happen in kindergarten and first grade – the years students learn to read.
In School and On Track 2014, the second annual report by Attorney General Kamala Harris, breaks out truancy data by county and looks at absences in general by race and income level.
That the earliest grades have the most empty seats may show that parents do not understand how times have changed, said Ginger Johnson, associate superintendent of Modesto City Schools.
“Kindergarten is a whole different classroom than it was 20 years ago,” Johnson said. Children are expected to have beginning reading and addition skills down pat when they enter first grade. “We need our kindergartners there,” she said.
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The school district hired more attendance liaisons this year, bringing to seven the number of workers making calls and knocking on doors if students don’t show up, Johnson said. It brought down the truancy rate by 3 percent last year.
“We really don’t want our kids coming to school sick. That doesn’t help anybody,” she said, but for other cases, the liaisons make a difference.
The school district measures overall average daily attendance as required by the current state system, which does not track absences by child. Its goal of 98 percent average daily attendance, Johnson said, “is a very, very lofty goal. But we have slowly seen our rate rise.”
In his school kickoff speech to staff, Patterson Joint Unified Schoold District Superintendent Phil Alfano pointed with pride to an overall 96 percent average attendance rate. “Even the high school – that is huge! That doesn’t happen in California,” Alfano said.
Merced City School District released its average daily attendance report in tandem with the study’s arrival. “Our board is committed to raising the bar on ADA to 97 percent. Students will learn if they are in school every day,” said Merced City Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran.
The goal is within reach, with an average of 96.32 percent for 2013-14, by district figures. Peterson Elementary and Cruickshank Middle School both topped that goal for the year.
The district has tied small cash awards to improvement and also tracks absences by child, said Greg Blount, director of information technology and support services for the district.
“We track our chronic absences through an internal Web reporting tool we built to allow principals to quickly and easily see which students are trending toward chronic, in real time,” Blount said.
High rates for blacks, poor
The statewide study also looked at high absence cases by ethnicity and income level, which California does not routinely collect. Among the findings, black elementary students were four times more likely to miss school than other groups. About 20 percent of black students missed 18 or more days of school last year, a rate higher than for homeless children (15 percent).
“Because the state is not collecting this critical information, the attendance crisis among African American children has largely remained hidden,” the report says.
“The high absenteeism rate among African American elementary students reflects a number of factors,” said Hedy Chang, director of San Francisco-based Attendance Works. She cited challenges with health care, transportation and housing, and higher suspension rates for black students. “Sadly, in some cases, their families or their communities have simply lost faith that school can make a difference in a child’s life,” she said.
Also missing out were poor children of all races, the study showed. Among the most severe cases – kids who miss 36 days of school or more – 90 percent were from low-income homes.
Truancy was broken down by county for 2012-13. In this region, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties had the highest rates. More than 1 in 4 elementary students had at least three unexcused absences or tardies. San Joaquin was slightly lower, and in Merced and Stanislaus counties, roughly 1 in 5 students were counted as truant.
Tuolumne County Superintendent Joe Silva said his county had a large bump in absenteeism that year. “I think there was a flu epidemic in 2012-2013. Dr. Stolp, public health officer, declared a medical emergency,” Silva said. Several districts have revamped their absence review process and have set aside money in their community-driven spending plans to raise attendance.
On a mission
Stanislaus County is focusing on truancy as part of its Destination Graduation Initiative, said county Superintendent Tom Changnon.
“We are very concerned about truancy as one of the leading factors for student dropouts. Two of the five pillars of this initiative revolve around truancy and the importance for parents to engage their students, and themselves, in striving for daily attendance at school,” Changnon said.
His office promotes consistent attendance in early grades for long-term school success, he said, “to help parents see the importance of establishing a solid foundation of valuing education with children in their early years of development.”
In Merced County, Superintendent Steven Gomes tied attendance to students’ chances for success.
“It is the mission of (the Merced County Office of Education) and all of the school districts in Merced County to ensure students have equal opportunities and access to a high-quality education. We take attendance very seriously since it is a huge part of equity and access in our education system,” Gomes said.
Harris worked with the Aeries Student Information System to analyze 2013-14 school year data for 32 school districts for a representative sampling. The study was released while a package of legislation she championed this year to improve absence reporting and Student Attendance Review Boards sat on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.