A family trip to see the total solar eclipse in Oregon this year resulted in a letter from Breen Elementary School declaring a Rocklin 10-year-old a truant after he missed three days early in the school year.
The letter warned Richard and Lilia Wilson that they must ensure their son attends school after he accrued the unexcused absences. A list of potential ramifications included the school seeking prosecution of both parents and their son if they don’t comply, which is allowed under the state’s education code.
The Rocklin Unified School District is legally required by the state to keep track of students with unexcused absences and reach out to parents once they’ve missed multiple days of school, said Kathleen Pon, the district’s deputy superintendent.
The celestial event took place on Monday, Aug. 21, coinciding with Benjamin’s first few days of fifth grade. Richard Wilson, his father, said the trip was an educational opportunity that he and his family couldn’t miss. He and his own stepfather bonded over their fascination of astronomy, spending nights stargazing and playing with telescopes, he said.
Wilson carried on the stargazing tradition with his own son, Benjamin. The two watched a partial eclipse together while Benjamin was still in preschool. Wilson, 51, reserved a camping spot at a park in Madras, Ore., for his family a year in advance, which he had been waiting for since he was 12 years old, he said.
“There was a personal connection for me,” Wilson said. “I was as interested in seeing his reaction as much as I was interested in seeing the eclipse.”
The family decided to tour the area for a few days after the eclipse to avoid traffic following the event and returned on Wednesday. When the school asked the reason for his son’s absence days later, Wilson told them he took his son to see the solar eclipse.
More than a month later, Wilson got the truancy letter from Breen Elementary, signed by the school’s principal and dated Sept. 29.
“I was in disbelief,” Wilson said. “It seemed appropriate for a teenager who was dipping out to hang out at the pool hall, not a 10-year-old boy.”
The district this year began sending such letters to parents whenever a student, over the course of a year, skips school or shows up late more than three times, has three unexcused absences or stays home sick without a doctor’s note for more than 14 days at the start of the year, Pon said. Administrators noticed higher rates of absenteeism last year that were not related to illnesses, she said.
The school’s policy counts illnesses, doctor’s visits and medical procedures, funerals, attendance of religious retreats that don’t exceed more than four hours of school time per semester and naturalization ceremonies as acceptable reasons for an excused absence.
Pon did not know how many truancy letters have been sent out since the start of school. An annual notice includes most of the information sent out to parents in the truancy letter but does not say how many unexcused absences are required before a student is marked a truant.
“Attendance and chronic truancy, for all schools in California, it’s part of our accountability program,” Pon said. “(Parents) are the custodians and they have a right to take their families on vacation. But at the end of the day, the school is still held accountable.”
The truancy letters come as California public schools test a new school accountability platform called California School Dashboard, an online program that rates school performance in categories such as college and career readiness, suspension rates and chronic absenteeism. The dashboard is being fully implemented this fall.
According to the most recent state data, Rocklin Unified had a truancy rate of 19 percent in 2014-15, higher than Placer County’s overall rate of 15 percent. Sacramento County had a truancy rate of 38 percent that same year. Truancy was defined as an unexcused absence for more than three days or missing or skipping more than 30 minutes of school more than three times over the course of one year.
Pon said the district’s biggest concern was the effect that missed days of school has on a student’s ability to learn and keep up with their studies. Letters mailed to parents once students have missed more than three days of school are meant to start a dialogue between parents and school staff about the importance of attending class, she said.
“Attendance is a big focus for the school district because we know students who are in school actually learn and achieve more,” she said.
The most extreme repercussions listed in the letter, including prosecution, would occur for cases of chronic truancy, rather than three unexcused absences like in the case of Benjamin, she said.
Since receiving the letter, Breen Elementary School staff have reached out to Wilson and have assured him that they will work together if he has to pull his son out of school for a different reason, he said.
“I feel it’s resolved,” Wilson said.