Education

Large Sacramento County school districts face absenteeism challenges

Five Sacramento area school districts had more than 26,000 students combined who missed school at least 15 days in the 2013-14 school year, according to a new national report.

The education group Attendance Works analyzed a federal survey of 16,240 districts across the country to measure how frequently students don’t show up.

The findings released this month place Natomas, Sacramento City, San Juan, Twin Rivers and Elk Grove unified among the 4 percent of districts nationally responsible for half of the nation’s chronically absent students. The report defines chronic absenteeism as missing at least three weeks in the year.

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights began gathering absenteeism data two years ago for the 2013-14 school year and released results in June.

Attendance Works showed that students in the nation’s heavily urban areas with concentrations of poverty in communities of color were among the most vulnerable. The five Sacramento County districts cited are large and serve some of the region’s poorest students. Chronic absence starts in preschool and kindergarten, the report said, and is greatest among children living in poverty.

Other factors played a role, too, including poor housing, overuse of student suspensions and, among rural districts, transportation. In the tiny Round Valley Unified School District in Northern California, more than half the students chronically missed school.

Why do so many students stay away?

The University of California, Davis, began looking at that question four years ago on behalf of the Sacramento City Unified School District and found a host of factors. Besides illness, they include homelessness, not enough clothing, lack of transportation and students having to care for younger siblings, according to research led by Nancy Erbstein, a faculty member affiliated with the Center for Regional Change.

Students not yet chronically absent had another list of sometimes emotional or security reasons for missing school, such as bullying or friendship problems, relationships with school staff or worry about safely getting to school.

“It’s safe to say it has been eye-opening for us,” said Victoria Flores, director of student support services for the Sacramento district. The project identified chronically absent students by census tract, correlating that with poverty data. While using outreach to help families tackle those and other obstacles, the district also is looking at the flip side of the issue to capitalize on what makes students want to attend.

“One of the biggest reasons that kids come to school are relationships,” Flores said. “That speaks to the importance of building social and emotional skills.”

In the Sacramento region, Natomas Unified had chronic absenteeism at about 16 percent, highest in the region, according to the report.

“It’s not a surprise to us,” Superintendent Chris Evans said. He said the district shared data with the Department of Education two years ago and at about the same time began looking closer at the issues.

“There obviously was conversation about attendance rates and truancy,” he said. “But chronic absenteeism was a new discussion.”

 

Natomas launched a student data collection system that allows administrators to monitor chronic absenteeism day to day and month to month to identify early signs of chronic absenteeism, he said. In California, that’s defined as 10 percent or more of a school year.

For Natomas, that’s equal to missing 18 or more days out of a 180-day instructional year. So if a student misses two days in the opening weeks of school, district officials take note.

Evans said when attendance lags, district representatives visit homes. The schools track daily attendance. And each of the 14 campuses has a full-time psychologist to respond to social and emotional needs.

One of the biggest reasons that kids come to school are relationships.

Victoria Flores, Sacramento City Unified School District

That focus is starting to make a difference, Evans said, noting that the number of Natomas students consistently missing school declined last year.

Several districts report gains from their efforts, which include strengthening family ties to school, adding counselors and support staff, closely monitoring attendance and increasing school awareness campaigns.

Rudy Puente, director of student services at Twin Rivers, said the district’s parent-teacher conferences in recent years have numbered in the thousands. The superintendent sent letters to parents at the start of last year emphasizing the importance of attendance. And all schools have designated individuals who are the “heartbeat of what’s going on with attendance.”

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works and co-author of the national report, said that nationally 6.5 million students were chronically absent in the survey.

“We know that if you are missing too much school starting in kindergarten and first grade, your chances of reading at the end of third grade are very slim. Then you fall behind,” she said. She called chronic absence “an early warning that something is off, especially for the little ones.”

Starting next year, chronic absenteeism will receive more focus as the California Department of Education begins yearly data collection to satisfy a federal requirement.

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