The Public Eye

Many Sacramento-area school districts exceed state average for truancy

Sacramento

Sacramento County school districts in Natomas and Galt posted among the highest truancy rates in the region in the 2013-14 school year, new data from the California Department of Education show.

In Natomas Unified School District, nearly 8,000 students – or 57 percent of enrollment – were classified as truant in the 2013-14 school year, according to the state.

In the Galt Joint Union High School District, a much smaller system with about 2,300 students, 87 percent of the students were reported as truant.

Superintendents for both districts told The Sacramento Bee that the numbers they reported to the state were mistakenly overstated. Their observations signal a larger difficulty: Many schools struggle to understand what are excused absences and how to consistently record the data.

Being truant under California law means that a student without a valid excuse is absent all day on three occasions or tardy more than 30 minutes three times during the school year.

Statewide, about 31 percent of California’s 6.4 million students were truant through June 2014, the Department of Education said. Only four school districts in Sacramento County had lower truancy rates, including San Juan Unified and Folsom Cordova Unified.

Two other large districts, Sacramento City Unified and Elk Grove Unified, reported rates higher than the state, with rates of nearly 41 percent and more than 39 percent, respectively.

District representatives say schools have worked for years to respond to absenteeism and late arrivals, in part by strengthening ties with families to support good attendance.

Sacramento City, Twin Rivers and San Juan districts work with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office on their PACT program, or Partners Against Chronic Truancy, in which a judge, someone from the prosecutor’s office and Sacramento County Health and Human Services meet with up to 400 parents at a time for a presentation with statistics and information on “what can happen with kids not going to school,” said Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Natalia Luna. .”

Since the program begin in 2010, Luna said, there have been 71 meetings.

Truancy tracking helps schools recognize when individual students struggle to get to school, either because of parents’ work schedule, or child care issues or transportation problems. Sometimes parents don’t let school officials know that a child is home sick.

Gabe Ross, spokesman for Sacramento City Unified, said chronic absenteeism, missing school for at least 10 percent of the 180-day school year, excused or otherwise, is a stronger indicator than truancy of a student at risk.

“Chronic absence can be any absence, health-related or a funeral,” Ross said.

Whatever the reasons, missing 10 percent of the school year means a student forfeits crucial learning.

“We’re trying to find out from our parents what obstacles are keeping you from getting your kids to school. If we can figure out those obstacles, we can support them,” said Ken McPeters, Sacramento City Unified’s director of dropout prevention and attendance.

In the Elk Grove district, Elk Grove High School recorded a 68 percent truancy rate, one of the school system’s highest.

But Cathy Guy, principal at Elk Grove High School, said the late-to-class students far outnumber the small share of students who skip school. The reports to the state don’t distinguish students with three days of unexcused daylong absences from those who are a half-hour late to class, she said.

Still, she said, “We know that if a kid is not here, they’re going to have a hard time being academically successful,” she said.

Districts do respond to truancy, using it as a marker for students who might need help, said Chris Evans, superintendent for the Natomas district.

The Natomas district has created a data “warehouse” for schedules, attendance and other student information, Evans said. Officials for several districts said overall they need to streamline or improve their reporting systems to get good data in the aggregate.

“This year and last year, we began detailed attendance code training to make sure our schools know what’s a legitimate excuse and what’s unexcused,” Evans said. “We want to have the right data.”

The correct data on truancy, he said, should be 47 percent for 2013-14. But that information was compiled too late to meet the state reporting window. The data to the state, he said, mistakenly included students who on just one occasion either were late to class 30 minutes or missed school without a valid excuse.

In Galt, Superintendent Matthew Roberts said his district also realized its over-reporting too late and instituted a fix last August.

In Elk Grove, district spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton said officials want to do more to help truant students. She said the district put together a task force earlier this year that recently recommended more consistent reporting and tracking of truancy data through training.

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee. Staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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