Los Angeles, Calif.

In Los Angeles, a strategic plan to reduce chronic absence increased the number of students attending school regularly, led to partnerships with the broader community, and saved the school district more than $1 million that would have been lost to student absenteeism.  The work includes:

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) effort began in 2007 at the suggestion of school board member Yolie Flores, who connected Attendance Works with the district official responsible for tracking attendance, Director of Pupil Services Debra Duardo.

Intrigued by chronic absence, a new way of looking at attendance that focused on both excused and unexcused absences, Duardo requested a chronic absence analysis and was surprised to find the proportion of students missing too much school was as high in kindergarten as it was in ninth grade.  She also knew that, under California’s school funding formula, the school district was losing money because of these absences.

She and her staff began developing a strategic plan that relied on careful attention to data. They defined their terms:  attending school 96 percent of the time  — or missing seven or fewer days — constituted “proficient” attendance.  Attending less than 91 percent — or missing 18 or more days — constituted chronic absence.

When John Deasy arrived as the district’s superintendent in 2011, he reinforced the importance of attendance by including it among the key indicators in his new Performance Meter accountability system.  Deasy’s emphasis on attendance prompted principals and school staff to pay closer attention to the data provided by Pupil Services and engage in a number of strategies to reduce chronic absenteeism, Duardo said.

Deasy set a goal of ensuring that 66 percent of the district’s students achieved proficient attendance.  An analysis at the end of the 2010-11 school year showed that only 55 percent of the district’s kindergarten students hit that mark and 19 percent were considered chronically absent.  Similarly, 62 percent of ninth graders had proficient attendance and 20 percent were chronically absent.

To improve attendance among all students, the district launched an attendance awareness campaign to emphasize the importance of attendance and explain how readily absence can affect student achievement.

The approach includes an “I’m In” campaign promoting healthy eating, student attendance, and dropout prevention. The district, with support from Clear Channel radio stations and other business partners, also offers an elaborate incentive program that allows students with a month of perfect attendance to enter into drawings to win tablet computers and bicycles.  High school seniors with a year of perfect attendance can compete for a car.

“We really had to change how we were targeting our students.” Duardo said. “We were targeting those kids who had the most serious problems. Now what we’re really doing is we’re targeting more at the universal level, having more incentives, teaching clear expectations.”

Beyond these universal approaches, though, other efforts are aimed squarely at students with the worst attendance records.  A Student Recovery Day in September helps to bring in the students who aren’t attending school and figure out why they’re missing class.  Community volunteers help with home visits and other outreach efforts.

The district also launched the Attendance Improvement Program  (AIP) in the 2011-12 school year.  Child welfare and attendance professionals, called Attendance Improvement Counselors, were put in place in 52 elementary schools and 25 senior high schools with weak attendance records.  The counselors helped track data, reach out to students and parents, create incentives for good attendance, and build capacity in the school community.  To augment the work, the district used VISTA members.

Pilot program staff also developed a toolkit with ideas for celebrating attendance, tools for tracking absences, tips for forming an attendance team and ideas for engaging community members.  The toolkit includes month-by-month plans and interventions, letter and memo templates, ideas for newsletters, incentives (lunch line passes), and recognition certificates and has been made available to all schools.

The results were striking.  Chronic absence rates in those schools were nearly cut in half in kindergarten, dropping from 31 to 17 percent in one year.  The proportion of students with proficient attendance rose from 37 to 62 percent.  The gains were significant, though smaller, in ninth grade.  The chronic absence rate dropped from 27 to 20 percent, while the proficient attendance rate rose from 51 to 63 percent.  Overall, the school district met its goal of ensuring 66 percent of students posted proficient attendance.  The goal for the 2012-13 school year is 71 percent.

Overall, the schools in the program saw a significant reduction in absenteeism, saving the district $1.5 million that would have been lost if attendance had matched the previous year’s rate.  There were 48,192 fewer full-day absences for Kindergarten and Grade 9 students at AIP schools compared to the same period last year.

The district’s work dovetails with the work of a School Atten­dance Task Force exploring the issue countywide. Launched by the court system, the task force paid particular attention to a daytime curfew ordinance that led to fines and court appearance for students who were missing or late to school.  In a report issued in January 2012, the task force concluded that the curfew was contributing to absenteeism.

The policy called for detaining and fining students who were missing or late to school and forced them to appear before a judge.  As a result some students who were running late avoided school altogether.  Others lost instructional time to appear in court.  What’s more, studies found that tickets went disproportionately to African-American and Latino students.  The City Council put a new policy in place in February 2012.

Now the school district is partnering with the city to reach absentee students through a truancy diversion program coordinated through 13 Youth WorkSource Centers.  The city government is helping to pay for 13 attendance counselors, who will be housed at the centers and work to identify the root causes of the absenteeism, while also connecting truant students with the services and support they need . As school district employees, the counselors have access to attendance records, grades, and other academic information. The centers opened October 1, 2012, and served 1,000 students in the first month.

“We realize there’s no way we can do this by ourselves at the school district,” Duardo said. “Our resources are very limited.  So we’re really looking at ways to partner with outside agencies in the community.  We own the data and we know who the students are.  We can help make the connections to city services.”

Revised November 2012