Working Together: An Interagency State Policy Forum on Chronic Absence

May 28, 2013



I.     Reducing Chronic Absence: A Call for Collective Action 

Standing together before an audience of nearly 100 representatives of state and local agencies, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Secretary of Health and Human Services Diane Dooley discussed the need to work collaboratively to reduce chronic absence across California. “One of my top priorities is to address chronic absenteeism,” said Torlakson who seeks to build bridges to others in state leadership positions such as   Attorney General Kamala Harris. Torlakson emphasized the need to get beyond truancy and look at all the causes of chronic absence. The California Department of Education has produced a Student Attendance Review Board (SARB) handbook to help local attendance boards address absenteeism and included chronic absence as a criteria for its annual model SARB awards. “We can have our best teachers in place, but if our students are not there, it doesn’t make a difference,” he said. Dooley describe how chronic absenteeism is one of the challenges her agency faces when dealing with foster children. She pledged to work across institutional lines to deal with the health and social service needs of chronically absent students. “Showing up at school matters. Showing up at work matters and, she said to the participants, “showing up today matters.”

II.  Improving Outcomes For Students of Color: Using Chronic  Absence As A Trigger For Early Intervention

Dr. Robert Ross, President & CEO of The California Endowment, described how chronic absence connects to his foundation’s emphasis on health and  in understanding why so many young black men and boys end up in prison. He recognized chronic absence as an early warning signal that a student is headed off track. “Chronic absence, at whatever grade, is a cry for help…,” he said. “What I am submitting is that if a child is chronically absent, it is a warning flag of social or emotional unwellness either in the child or the family. We need to develop a system that wraps around the child or the family.” Ross also spoke about the disproportionately high suspension rates among African American and Latino students and suggested giving teachers more tools to address student behavior. Power Point Slide

III. What Does It Take To Reduce Chronic Absence?  An Overview and Lessons Learned from Baltimore MD

Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the first U.S. cities to tackle the problem of chronic absence. Driven by data showing that 34 percent of middle school students and 44 percent of high school students were chronically absent, the mayor’s office collaborated with Open Society Institute-Baltimore and Baltimore City Public Schools to launch a citywide, inter-agency attendance work group.  Involving city, school and community stakeholders, this initiative has sought to improve access to attendance data, develop prevention and early intervention strategies, address barriers to attendance, and initiate a campaign to make attendance a high priority citywide including among children in early elementary and preschool.

The panel described how the work has already led to substantial decrease in chronic absence in middle school and the foster care population, working in concert with the city Department of Social Services. Recent research into preK attendance and its connection to adverse academic outcomes has led to cross-cutting strategies to engage parents of young children earlier. The school district is also pursuing an aggressive messaging campaign with materials created both by the district and by high school students.

  • Hedy Chang, Director, Attendance Works, Opening & Moderator: Opening Power Point, Baltimore Power Point
  • Attendance Best Practices, Baltimore Public Schools
  • Climate Walk (observations draft), Baltimore Public Schools
  • Faith Connolly, Executive Director, Baltimore Education Research Collaborative
  • Sue Fothergill, Director, Baltimore Student Attendance Campaign
  • Molly McGrath, Director, Baltimore City Department of Social Services
  • Karen Webber N’Dour, Executive Director, Student Support and Safety, Baltimore City Schools

IV.    Chronic Absence:  An Interagency Priority Beyond Schools

The panel discussed how public agencies, at the county and state level, in California can partner with districts and schools to reduce chronic absence.  It highlighted the experience of Alameda County agencies as well as senior leadership at state agencies who already share a commitment to using interagency collaboration to address chronic absence. Teresa Drenick, an assistant prosecutor in Alameda County, described how the focus grew naturally out of her office’s work. “Nearly every criminal defendant had that common thread–not graduating from high school and being chronically absent,” she said. “Younger ones involved in gangs or petty offenses had that common thread of not attending school, not being engaged, not graduating.”

The state Attorney General’s office is also working with school districts to ensure they are taking the appropriate steps to address truancy (unexcused absences) starting in elementary school. Other speakers described efforts to share attendance data among school districts and social service agencies, as well as health solutions to improving attendance.

  • Moderator, Rose Owens-West, Region IX Equity Assistance Center at WestEd
  • Tracey Schear, Director, Center for Healthy Schools and Communities, Alameda County Health Services Agency
  • Teresa Drenick, Assistant District Attorney, Alameda County
  • Jill Habig, Attorney Advisor, Executive Office of Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, California Department of Justice
  • Greg Rose, Deputy Director, Children & Family Services, Deputy Director, Children and Family Services Division

V.  Improving Student Attendance In California: What Can We Do?

In California, we now have the opportunity to move beyond theory into action. Participants broke into small groups to begin the process of identifying possible actions ranging from programmatic work to creating incentives for addressing attendance. This is the beginning of ongoing collaborative work.  This handout on attendance messaging was shared with participants.

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