California, Other States Battle Truancy and Chronic Absenteeism

Advocacy groups, district attorney’s offices, social service agencies and experts from school districts gathered under the California Department of Education with the goal of working together to keep children in school. California is one of five states that does not keep track of chronically absent students, and now state education officials are making the battle of chronic absenteeism a priority, reports Kathryn Baron of Ed Source.

Attendance is, arguably, the most basic issue a school has to deal with:

“We can have our best teachers in place, but if our students are not there, it doesn’t make a difference,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in his opening remarks, where he stressed that schools alone cannot solve this problem.

Chronic absenteeism is defined by 2010 California law as a student missing more than one month or 10 percent of the 180-day school year. Standards are similar across the country, and researchers estimate that approximately 7.5 million students are considered chronically absent per year. Excused and unexcused absences, as well as out of school suspension, are all counted towards chronic absenteeism.

According to Attendance Works, a San Francisco based national research and advocacy organization, only half of the students who are chronically absent for two years between 8th and 12th grade are likely to graduate.

While teens have the highest amount of chronic absences, the second largest demographic plagued by chronic absences is kindergarteners when students’ attendance isn’t mandatory. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty 1 in every 10 kindergarteners is chronically absent.

Research indicates that lost learning time in the early years can set students up for academic failure. Only 17 percent of California children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade scored proficient or better on the California standardized tests in English language arts, compared to 64 percent who attended school regularly, according to a 2011 report prepared for Attendance Works.

Rates of diseases are higher in low-income families, making poverty and illness the leading contributors to chronic absenteeism. Asthma is the most common reason for why kids miss school, accounting for 1.6 million missed days of school in California and 14 million across the country.

Doctors say with adequate health care there is no reason why asthma should cause a child to miss school.

Models that effectively combat chronic absenteeism do exist in the state of California. In Alamada County the courts and probation department worked with the district attorney’s office to develop the Truancy Referral Program. Community service organizations, public health and social services, and the juvenile justice system work together to provide chronically absent students with the help and guidance they need.

Truancy Courts are in place try to work together with parents to get kids back in school before resorting to punitive measures. Parents, and students in some cases, can face $1,000 fines, community service time, or even be sentenced to jail time.

California Department of Education officials are hopeful that more districts will create collaborative projects based on the ideas shared at the meeting. In September, Attendance Works will try to give that process a jolt by launching its first Attendance Awareness Month to coincide with the opening of school.

Chronic absenteeism and truancy continue to plague school districts in the United States and worldwide: