Oakland, Calif., has oriented the 37,000-plus student school system to improve student attendance and bring absentee students back to class. This required investment into district systems and infrastructure. The effort began with former Superintendent Tony Smith, who came to Oakland in 2009. He found that student attendance was not a main concern, and the district did not realize the extent to which chronic absence was a problem. The personnel to address attendance issues had been cut to the bone due to budgetary challenges. The district office had only two full-time staff to work with all 106 schools. At the school site level, many schools lacked a full-time attendance clerk.

Data laid the foundation for making improved attendance a strategic priority. In June 2010, the district’s Research Assessment and Data (RAD) department partnered with Attendance Works and the Urban Strategies Council to complete the first analysis of chronic absence.  Overall, the data showed that 14% of students in the Oakland Unified School District had missed 10 percent of the previous school year. The chronic absence analysis also uncovered a wealth of information that has not only helped administrators understand the problems they face, but also identify the schools that are succeeding despite challenging circumstances. And it has helped bring together city officials, higher education, school officials, community organization and philanthropy to turn around attendance in Oakland schools.

The deep dive into multiple years of attendance data produced a breakdown of chronic absence rates by racial and ethnic groups, grade level and school campus. And because the school district has an open enrollment policy, with many students attending school outside their neighborhoods, the analysis also looked at absenteeism by census tract where students live, and mapped the results.

The analysis also revealed that elementary school absenteeism is especially high in kindergarten and in particular neighborhoods already challenged by environmental health hazards and poverty.

Higher chronic absence rates among African-American students, starting in elementary school, suggested that improving school attendance as early as kindergarten could help reduce racial inequities in academic achievement.

Bringing in other data, the analysis found poor attendance often correlated with foreclosures, poverty and single parenthood.  A more recent analysis has also shown a direct link to asthma.

Putting Actionable Data into the Hands of Staff

By the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, the district’s RAD office was moving forward with new reports that provided principals and site-level leadership teams with chronic absence data. In addition to sharing information on average daily attendance, the new weekly reports showed the percent and number of chronically absent students overall in each school, by grade, and by gender and ethnicity. Principals in Oakland could now compare their statistics with other schools and see the names of the students at their school who were missing more than 10 percent of school days for the year to-date. Staff, with support from Attendance Works, mined the data to identify schools that were “bright spots” or positive outliers so that the district could draw from what was already working.  These included Brookfield Elementary School, Franklin Elementary School and Oakland High School.

Making Attendance a District-Wide Priority

Meanwhile, Superintendent Smith and the school district’s central office staff were engaged in strategic planning with school staff, parents, students and community representatives. Attendance became a district-wide priority in the strategic plan, unanimously passed by the Board of Education in June 2011. The plan envisioned Oakland as a Full Service Community School District and set explicit goals for improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged students, particularly African American males. Smith set the following goals for attendance:

  • All schools will achieve 98 percent average daily attendance
  • Schools will reduce chronic absence to 5 percent or less
  • At least 85 percent of students at each school will have satisfactory attendance (satisfactory attendance for a student is defined as attending 95 percent of total school days)

As part of accountability to the Board and the larger community, Smith reports on progress towards the attendance goals in the district’s Balanced Scorecard.

Building Capacity: Providing Training and Support to Schools

In addition to establishing clear goals and actionable data, an essential element of the work has been expanding the district’s attendance infrastructure. Initially, Attendance Works was brought in to help the district develop training and support to principals. One important effort was providing support to Roosevelt Middle School, where Principal Cliff Hong was committed to making his school a model for how chronic absence could be turned around. Within the course of one school year, the combination of a data-driven focus on attendance, personalized early outreach, support from community partners, and a generally healthier school climate has helped cut Roosevelt’s chronic absence rate from 15 to 8 percent, as the school’s Academic Performance Index (API) score climbed by 30 points!

By Fall 2012, Smith brought on a new Associate Superintendent for the Family, School, Community Partnerships department, Curtiss Sarikey, who took responsibility for embedding a dual focus on reducing chronic absence and decreasing suspensions into district practice, operations and professional development.  A key first step was expanding the staff of the Attendance and Discipline Support Services division.

Now, district staff has developed the capacity to provide regular training to principals and administrative staff. In addition, there is a new Attendance Manual that takes the guess work out and gives clear guidance to staff on what to do to interrupt chronic absence and when. Staff members work in attendance teams at each school; they have a process to follow. They know the district policy on chronic absence and truancy and what steps to take at every point to help students improve attendance. With support, school teams are able to develop site-based plans for how they will interrupt patterns of chronic absence.

Other district office resources have also been aligned to support schools in reducing chronic absence. Through the work of family liaisons in the Office of Family Engagement, an initial cohort of six schools are working to engage parents to improve student outcomes and reduce chronic absence. One school has already seen a 6 percent  improvement in attendance in the first semester.

Forging Community Partnerships

While much was being done within the school district, vital community partnerships were being forged. “We have to take collective responsibility,” Smith says. The school district works with the Oakland Education Cabinet, which brings together education, business and labor leaders, social service agencies, higher education leaders, workforce development providers and foundations to address Oakland’s critical education needs. The cabinet established a committee explicitly focused on attendance.  By Spring 2012, under the strong leadership of its chair, County District Attorney, Teresa Drenick, the committee had decided that it would start with a focus on reducing chronic absence in the early grades, given the lack of prior focus on young children and the potential for making a significant difference.

The Oakland Housing Authority, which serves on the committee, exemplifies how community partners can make a difference. For the past two years, the Oakland Housing Authority has been committed to partnering with the school district and working directly with schools to support chronically absent children who live in public subsidized housing. Before school started in the fall of 2012, housing authority leaders and staff made personal phone calls and sent out back-to-school information packets, reaching out to 1,100 students and their families to improve attendance for the new school year. OHA Parent Ambassadors are training to reach out to other parents during the school year with the message that school attendance is vital to their children’s futures.

Getting the Message Out to Parents

Working with the Oakland Education Cabinet and Attendance Works, district leaders are getting the message out to parents that Every Day Counts and that parents have a positive and important role to play in helping their children get to school. In fall of 2012, schools with the highest rates of chronic absence were selected for extra support. The Alameda County district attorney, along with district staff and members of the Education Cabinet, hand-delivered “Every Day Counts” attendance toolkits — which contained letters to parents, awards certificates, and other materials—to school principals and encouraged them to make attendance a priority in their schools. This work has benefited from its ability to dovetail with the efforts of Oakland Reads 2020, a local group working with the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which seeks to improve 3rd grade reading by taking a comprehensive approach that addresses school attendance along with school readiness, summer learning loss and parent engagement.

During the first quarter of 2013, the district is also sponsoring a series of summits that educate parents about the negative effects of missing too many days of school and empower them to take concrete steps to help their children.

Results to date

In fewer than four years, OUSD has moved from a district with a few outlier schools with promising practices driven by site level leadership to a school system with a district-wide approach to reducing chronic absence.

There is still a long way to go before Oakland schools reach the three attendance goals set by Superintendent Smith. However, the results are heartening. By end of 2011-12, the data showed that chronic absence had dropped to one out of ten students. Thirteen principals and school teams were recognized for meeting or exceeding the district’s attendance goals. One principal, whose school missed the mark by less than 1 percent, said with determination, “We’re so close. We are going to make it next year.

Revised 2/2/2013