In California’s rural Del Norte County, School Superintendent Don Olson is bullish on attendance. “It’s the most important work we do,” he says. “We have to have students in attendance in order for us to teach them effectively.”

So when the state gave local school districts more flexibility in creating their budgets to serve students more equitably, Olson made sure that attendance figured prominently in his spending plan. A student services coordinator will work directly with foster students, many of whom have poor attendance. About $30,000 is built into the budget for helping schools to incentivize good attendance. And $10,000 goes toward rewarding schools that meet the district-wide attendance targets.

The money included in his Local Control and Accountability Plan builds on three years of work examining data, conveying positive messages and reducing chronic absence. “Whether you live in a large, or in a small rural area, this work has to be done,” Olson says. “It just has to be put in the forefront. And you have to look at the data.”

Tucked in the northwest edge of California just south of Oregon, the Del Norte County Unified School District has 11 schools serving about 3,600 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. About 70 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced meals. The majority of students are white, but the district has sizeable Hispanic and Native American populations.

Olson was puzzled over why second and third grade students were not achieving proficiency on state reading tests, so the district began adjusting teaching practices and curriculum. Little changed. Then, at the suggestion of The California Endowment, he teamed with Attendance Works to look at chronic absence data for the 2010-11 school year.

“What we got back was quite shocking,” Olson recalls. “We had just over 30 percent of kindergartners and just under 30 percent of first grade missing so much school that they couldn’t possibly attain grade level proficiency.”

Del Norte began a comprehensive approach to improving attendance that includes:
  • Monthly meetings with all principals to share data and strategies
  • Attendance teams in each school that monitor attendance regularly
  • Monthly updates to the local Board of Education to show attendance and chronic absence rates
  • Professional development for principals and social workers
  • Saturday school classes that allow students to make up for absences.

Crucial to the approach is a set of positive messages to parents and students that emphasizes the importance of attending school, rather than the punitive consequences for skipping school.

“Instead of “Why wasn’t your child in school today,” it’s ‘We really missed your child in school today,’” Olson says. “All of our phone calls to parents are on a positive note. They know that we care.”

Students receive recognition and prizes for good attendance. If they want to improve their records and make up for missed days, they can come to a special Saturday session.

Principals, too, have incentives to reduce absences. When improved attendance rates bring more state aid, the district shares the money with school sites. About $68,000 in additional funding went to schools last year.

Beyond specific attendance initiatives, the district works to make school a more engaging place for students. For instance, when the district added an art teacher who taught every day at an alternative school, students started attending more regularly.

Recognizing the need to address the elevated rates of chronic absence among its Native American students, the district has also begun meeting with community supporters, the Tribal Judge and Attendance Works to examine how they might partner to improve attendance.

The results are promising with chronic absence rates dropping in key grades:
  • The proportion of chronically absent kindergartners dropped from 30 percent in 2012-2013 to 19.9 percent the following year.
  • The 8th grade rate dropped from 18.4 to 12.6 percent

  • The 12th grade rate fell from 30.3 to 24.3 percent

“Last year was our best year, we really gained traction,” Olson says. “It takes consistent hard work to make the gains we’re after. We improved at every grade level in K-5, but we need more supports and services in middle school. And we know we need to work on that transition piece into a comprehensive middle school.”

Read how Del Norte Principal Paige Swan has improve attendance at Smith River Elementary School.