A recent report by the California attorney general’s office states that approximately 50,000 elementary school students in California were considered chronically truant and more than 250,000 were chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year. The West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) had a chronic absence rate of 17 percent.
These numbers represent an attendance crisis that not only takes away funding from the district but also places students at an educational disadvantage. Truants cost Contra Costa County approximately $33,000 in funding during the 2012-13 school year. And that doesn’t begin to tally up the academic and social costs of lost or interrupted learning for young people.
Marcus E. Walton, a WCCUSD spokesman, said the district and its schools are continuously working to improve attendance. Such high truancy rates don’t come as a surprise, he said, because the numbers are high across the state.
A student is chronically truant if he or she is absent without a valid excuse for at least 10 percent of the school year. A student who is absent for any reason, both excused or unexcused, for the same 10 percent is defined as chronically absent. Any student that is absent from school or tardy for more than a 30-minute period without a valid excuse for three full days is defined as truant.
Funding of California school districts is based on average daily attendance (ADA). The ADA is calculated by dividing the total number of days of student attendance by the number of days of school taught during the same period. The district’s budget gets reduced when students miss school.
The report, called In School + On Track 2014, said about 1 in 10 California elementary schools had a truancy rate exceeding 40 percent. Furthermore, almost 90 percent of students with severe attendance problems were identified as low-income; these students missed 36 days or more. African American students were found to be chronically truant at nearly four times the rate of other students.
Richmond elementary schools such as Verde, Lincoln, King and Stege had truancy rates above 50 percent in the 2012-13 school year.
The district and state don’t identify the root of the truancy problem in schools. Walton said the reasons students miss school vary based on individual circumstances.
According to the National Center for School Engagement, which provides resources and research about school attendance and achievement for various state and federal agencies, truancy is often linked to school, home, community and personal factors. Examples of these factors include, but aren’t limited to health, financial and transportation obstacles.
WCCUSD has made efforts to reduce the rates in its schools by working with community partners and families.
“District and school staff work to help parents and students understand the importance of being present every day,” Walton said. “We also attempt to identify any issues that might cause a student to be chronically truant or absent and provide the resources necessary to assist them in getting to school on time.”
Walton said the district has already made improvements by decreasing its chronic absences over the last three years from 45 to 23 percent for black males, and from 17 to 14 percent for Latino males. The district’s 2014 Local Control and Accountability Plan said its goal is to decrease the chronic absence rate to 10 percent in the next three years.
The district uses the Attention2Attendance Program, an intervention software program to help districts reduce truancy and absences. The program is designed to help increase parent communication, recover learning time, improve graduation rates and close the achievement gap.
The attorney general’s report argues that school districts need a better way of tracking truancy so that its office can gain a better understanding of how to begin tackling the crisis. “California is one of only four states in the U.S. that does not track student attendance in its statewide records system,” the report said.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris passed her legislative package, “Every Kid Counts,” in both houses of the California legislature. The package included four bills aimed to reduce elementary school truancy.
Governor Jerry Brown had until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bills. He vetoed two of the four bills, AB1866 and AB1672, which would have required the state and the local school boards to collect truancy and absenteeism information.
He signed AB2141 and AB1643, which add law enforcement representatives to local school attendance review boards and require prosecutors to report back to schools when asked to charge a parent whose child has missed too much school.
In defense of the vetoes, Governor Brown wrote, “Keeping children in school and learning is a priority, but collecting more data is not the primary solution.”