Education

Truancy the norm at some Sacramento area high schools

Twin Rivers district office in North Highlands in 2012.
Twin Rivers district office in North Highlands in 2012. Sacramento Bee file

Valley High School achieved an undesirable status last school year.

The south Sacramento school recorded the highest truancy rate of any traditional campus in the Sacramento region, with 97 percent of its 1,600 students absent at least three days without an excuse or arriving half an hour late three or more times during the year.

The truancy rates at three high schools in the Twin Rivers Unified School District weren’t much better: Between 84 and 91 percent of students at Grant, Highlands and Foothill high schools also were truant, according to new data from the California Department of Education.

“We’re really concentrating on meeting with parents to see what the issues are in not getting to school on time or missing days,” said Twin Rivers’ Student Services Director Rudy Puente.

Last school year, about 125,500 of the area’s public school students – one in three – were classified as truants, according to the state data. In 2011-12, the earliest school year comparative data is available, one in four were truants.

A 2015 state attorney general’s office report observed that statewide elementary school truancy rates have increased slightly, but warned that the rise may be tied to better tracking rather than increased absences.

Data have shown a strong link between poverty and truancy. Over 75 percent of students with chronic attendance problems are low-income, according to the attorney general’s report, “In School + On Track.”

Compared to more affluent peers, low-income students face barriers that include health problems, transportation challenges and homelessness, according to the attorney general’s office. Puente said students may also have extra responsibilities at home, including taking their younger siblings to school.

 

At Valley High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District, about 90 percent of students had family incomes low enough to make them eligible for free or reduced lunch last year. At the 10 large traditional high schools in the region with the highest truancy rates, about three-fourths of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch.

By contrast, only about a fifth of the students at the 10 large, traditional high schools with the lowest truancy rates qualified for free or reduced lunch.

There is a culture of safety, a culture of camaraderie. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a place where kids want to be.

Jerry Smith, student and family support services director for Washington Unified

School districts have begun tackling the specific challenges, such as meeting with parents in early elementary school years to emphasize the importance of attendance and devoting more money to buses if transportation gaps exist. A study by the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis, by Kevin Gee and Kelsey Krausen, found that students fared better if they felt very safe and connected to a teacher or adult at school who cared about them.

Several students at Valley High School said they don’t want to be late to their Spanish class because the teacher stresses the importance of being on time.

“I am never late,” said junior Heather Benavides, 17. It’s not just the teacher who insists, she said. “My dad is really big on it.”

Catherine Goddard, who had two sons and a daughter in the Elk Grove Unified School District, said children need to learn early in life that it is their responsibility to attend school.

“Getting an education is the only job they have,” she said. “We’ve got to give them the tools to get there, give them a ride. The rest is up to them.”

Goddard spent a decade as a volunteer at Sheldon High School. Enabling children to avoid school “is where we fall short,” she said. “We are enabling our kids all the time. That’s got to stop. You can’t do that when you’re in the real world.”

There are exceptions to the poverty link. Sacramento Charter High, where roughly 70 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, recorded a truancy rate of about 27 percent. Parents sign contracts agreeing to make sure that their children are in class on time each day. The students themselves also commit to being on time.

Most of the students at West Campus are eligible for free or reduced lunch, but the school had a truancy rate last year of 12 percent. The selective high school considers past grades and attendance when admitting students.

And at River City High School in West Sacramento, 64 percent of students are disadvantaged. Yet the school has a truancy rate of about 30 percent.

Jerry Smith, director of student and family support services for Washington Unified School District, which includes River City, said the district in recent years has worked hard to change schools’ culture to encourage student attendance. It expanded an anti-bullying program, Reach One Alliance, that teaches respect and mutual support among students.

“There is a culture of safety, a culture of camaraderie. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a place where kids want to be. When you walk on that school you don’t feel a sense of tenseness,” Smith said. “Clearly the culture that has developed has a lot to do with that.”

The local district with the highest truancy rate was Natomas Unified at 51 percent.

“We need to encourage parents to do a better job calling us,” said Natomas spokesman Jim Sanders, suggesting that one problem may be that legitimate absences are being recorded as unexcused.

Studies show that students who are chronically absent lag their peers academically at an early age, and those who are truant in early years continue that pattern as they grow older. School districts also lose money, since much of their funding is tied to daily attendance.

Elk Grove Unified calculated that if all of its 62,000 students had achieved perfect attendance last year, the schools would have received at least $12.5 million more in student funding.

The large district this spring established a new district attendance improvement office dedicated to helping students and families overcome issues that can keep students out of school. The pilot program is focused on the benefits of education rather than penalties, said Don Gordon, district attendance coordinator.

The district has hired five people, including a part-time student support and health services coordinator and a part-time nurse, to oversee the project at 28 of its 65 schools, including Valley, Florin, Laguna Creek and Elk Grove high schools as well as feeder schools in the pilot program.

The district also has joined with a coalition, Partners Against Chronic Truancy, to hold informational and resource meetings for families whose children are chronically absent. The next meeting is 6 p.m. May 11 in the Monterey Trail High School gymnasium, 8661 Power Inn Road, Elk Grove.

“I explain the correlation between attendance and performance,” Gordon said.

“The whole purpose is to provide support for the family to change the behavior,” Gordon said. “My job is to send the message that it is not only about getting kids into school, it’s about getting them to understand the importance of coming to school from kindergarten to 12th grade.”

Schools also try to reward students with strong attendance records, honoring them at rallies and giving them prizes and free food.

Local businesses also have pitched in. The Elk Grove Auto Mall, in a popular annual promotion, will give one graduating Elk Grove Unified high school senior with perfect attendance $20,000 toward a car.

Punitive measures tend to be a last resort in truancy cases, said Amy Holliday, who supervises the misdemeanor jury trial unit for Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.

“If we file a charge under Penal Code 272, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, it can be filed (against a parent) as an infraction or a misdemeanor,” she said. While the law allows punishment of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 for a misdemeanor, Holliday said such cases are rare. She said school districts try to reduce truancy without legal intervention.

Holliday said cases don’t often land in truancy court. Infractions and misdemeanors “have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. And that can require sworn testimony along with the truancy records.

At Valley High School, senior Jennifer Guadian, 18, said she believes students are better this year about attendance. “It used to happen,” she said. But the school “calls your parents” if you don’t show, she said.

Besides, she said, attending school ought to be a matter of pride. “It represents who you are,” Guadian said. “If you are late to school and then you get a job, imagine what that (being late to work) represents.”

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