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Easy solutions for truancy elude schools

on October 5, 2015

Elementary schools in Contra Costa County had the highest truancy rate in the Bay Area for the 2013-14 school year, a new state report shows.

A separate report from the California Department of Education found that West Contra Costa Unified School District, which includes Richmond public schools, had the highest number of truant students in the county. Almost 60 percent of the school district’s 32,000 students were considered truant in 2013-14.

School officials said there is no simple solution for the problem of empty classroom seats, because so many individual circumstances in and out of school can affect student attendance.

The state attorney general’s report, called “In School + On Track 2015,” highlights truancy in elementary schools because good attendance in early grades is a factor in academic performance all the way through high school.

A student is considered truant if he or she is absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse at least three times in a school year. The report showed a statewide truancy rate of about 23 percent for elementary school students in 2013-14. For Contra Costa County, the comparable rate was 30.4 percent.

In all Contra Costa public schools, almost 70,000 students, or 38.9 percent of the total enrolled, were counted as truant for the 2013-14 school year, an increase from about a 31 percent truancy rate the previous year, according to the California Department of Education.

The other report, from the state attorney general’s office, found that more than 75 percent of students who had “chronic attendance problems” were classified as low-income. Furthermore, about 20 percent of chronically absent elementary school students–meaning they were absent excused or unexcused for at least 10 percent of the school year–were African-American and Native American.

The Contra Costa County Office of Education has been conducting an initiative, now in its second year, to raise awareness about the importance of attendance. In the wake of this countywide campaign, the latest reported numbers show truancy rates are still rising, and Lindy Khan, the office’s director of innovation and support, said she wasn’t surprised.

She said the increased emphasis on attendance is encouraging schools to focus more on identifying and tracking when a student isn’t present in school. Some schools that began using software to help identify absent and tardy students “saw their truancy rates skyrocket,” Khan said.

“It’s all about systems and the better the system the more you’re going to recognize the number of students who are absent,” she said.

Along with attendance monitoring software, WCCUSD also pays for special software, called “Attention2Attendance,” to communicate with parents about student absences. Marcus Walton, the district’s communication director, said it’s WCCUSD’s fourth year using the software, and this year’s contract costs $136,000.

Although this software in place, Scottie Smith, an independent education advocate who works with WCCUSD families and schools, said the district’s analysis of student attendance data and parent communication need improvements. Furthermore, she said, the district isn’t consistently and effectively implementing interventions to improve school attendance issues.

“You have to really hold schools accountable when they have a high absentee rate as to why,” Smith said.

Walton said the district is trying to do a better job of connecting resources to students and families to reduce unexcused no-shows. The district distributes an “attendance toolkit” annually to school sites. WCCUSD also has 10 full-service community schools with coordinators, care teams and on-site facilities, like health clinics.

The University of California at Santa Barbara in partnership with the state attorney general’s office selected West Contra Costa as one of three school districts to participate in a truancy-reduction program.

Michael Gottfried, a UCSB professor, is the lead researcher for the project, studying district attendance monitoring, district data and intervention programs. Gottfried said school districts in the program were chosen because of “noteworthy” initiatives attempting to reduce truancy, including health services on school sites.

The West Contra Costa district has been, “…doing a really good job of considering the whole child, considering that the child exists in the world of community and health,” he said.

Gottfried, who has studied the affects of absenteeism and truancy, explained missing school causes academic, behavioral and social problems for the absent student, but it can also negatively affect other students in the class.

He said in an email it will take more time to judge the impact of the district’s truancy-reduction efforts.

“So we can’t necessarily blame the district efforts for not working,” Gottfried said. “We might need to wait a few more years to see the longer-term effects of district efforts.”


  1. Erica T. Goode, M.D. on October 6, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I would like to know how careful and equal to other schools, those deeming a student as “truant” would be. Oversight? Example: if a child’s mother works, student is more than 30 min. late, mom isn’t aware that she forgot to send a note about the child’s migraine, or whatever, is this considered truancy? Who reviews the rationale for determining willful truancy, and who is 2nd confirmation source? Is the student “debriefed” and sent to counselor, RN,( if there is one)principal, to discuss the issue? How much “truancy follow-up/remediation, is available to schools? Are language and financial, bullying, and other issues, addressed? Is there a discussion on first day of school, with student body, stating the rules of truancy, sick leave, perceived need to stay home if mom works and a baby is present, etc?
    I grew up in Richmond, Berkeley, Pasadena schools. Truancy was seriously addressed, and rare.

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