Thousands of Sacramento City Unified School District students consistently fail to take the most basic step toward learning at school showing up for class.
A sobering report on chronically high absenteeism in the district found 11.7 percent of the students miss at least one out of every 10 school days.
In all, 5,020 Sacramento City Unified students fit the definition of chronically absent, meaning that they miss at least 10 percent of the school year. In some schools, severe absenteeism can exceed 20 percent, according to the analysis of 2010-11 attendance conducted by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.
That's more than enough time away from campus to hamper students' education. And it translates to a $3.1 million annual cost in attendance-based student funding or enough to fund 50 teachers.
UC Davis researchers expect to repeat their work for two subsequent years. And the groundwork is being set this year to engage community groups and others in a broad effort to better recognize at-risk students and help keep them in school.
School board President Jeff Cuneo said he was gratified that the district is looking at the issue.
"Obviously, when kids miss 10 percent or more of school every year, they are more likely to fall out of the system," Cuneo said. "I thought it was a solid first step and a beginning for other discussions. It was a sobering report."
Nationally, other areas fare far worse, according to a national initiative that addresses chronic absences.
"In our work, we've seen other communities with one out of four or even higher (chronic absenteeism)," said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works.
"In Baltimore, it's 23 percent of the kids," she said. "In Providence (R.I.), 37 percent."
The Sacramento City district, Chang said, "joins the more pioneering districts that are taking a hard look at the data."
One of the UC Davis findings showed chronically absent students performed worse on state physical fitness exams, indicating their health may be at risk.
Nancy Erbstein, an assistant research scientist in the department of Human Ecology at UC Davis and the lead researcher on the Center for Regional Change project, said another interesting finding was the geographic distribution of chronic absences.
"That's an important resource for thinking about the next steps, and developing partnerships and getting a handle on what's causing chronic absences as well as what to do to remove barriers (to attendance)," Erbstein said.
Poverty proved to be a major facet of the problem.
At Leataata Floyd Elementary, a school near the western end of Broadway where all children are eligible to take free or reduced-price lunch, more than one in five students missed at least 10 percent of school days.
Less than a mile away at Crocker/Riverside, a Land Park school where only 13 percent are eligible for subsidized meals, fewer than one in every 20 students was chronically absent.
The first-year study was funded by $47,800 in grants from the California Endowment and Sierra Health Foundation.
The next step, said district spokesman Gabe Ross, is to revise a draft work plan based on feedback received earlier this month and to start the second phase of the Chronic Absence Study with UC Davis and Community Link. The district also will form a Chronic Absence Committee that includes district and school staff as well as family and community members to help carry out the plan.
At Mark Hopkins Elementary, several students acknowledged multiple absences to attend a wedding or because of an illness.
One fourth-grader said he didn't keep track of days missed. But he was painfully aware of the consequences, saying that it meant less learning in the future.
Mark Hopkins Principal Tiffany Smith-Simmons said she and staff members are asking how they can better engage students and families to achieve consistent attendance.
"We ask ourselves, do we put emphasis on it at school? Is it clear that there is an expectation that kids come everyday?" the principal said.
Every Sunday night, her recorded message goes to parents by telephone.
"I always end it with, 'I will see everyone bright and early Monday morning,' " she said.
At Mark Hopkins Elementary, between 10 and 20 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2011 school year, according to the UC Davis report.
Every student at Mark Hopkins is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, meaning the poverty rate in the school is high. Just 12 percent of fifth-grade students met all six state physical fitness standards last year, compared with roughly 25 percent of fifth-graders statewide.
Some findings in the report were not surprising. Homeless students and those living in foster care, for example, proved to be among the most likely to miss school.
Other findings were grist for thought:
Chronic absenteeism was highest among kindergartners and high school seniors, and lowest among second- through fifth-graders.
And students who miss many days of school get in trouble more often than their peers. About one in five chronically absent students was suspended in 2011, compared with one in 17 students with better attendance.
Even when chronically absent students do attend, they face a tougher burden. The report said those students performed much worse than their peers academically. For example, only 21 percent of chronically absent middle school students performed at or above proficient on benchmark math tests in 2011, compared with a 51 percent proficiency rate among those who didn't miss much school.
11.7% Sacramento City Unified students who miss at least 1 of every 10 school days
5,020 Students in the district who fit the definition of chronically absent
$3.1 million Loss in attendance-based funding for the district enough to fund 50 teachers