San Diego, CA

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The annual report card on children in San Diego County, produced by The Children’s Initiative, measures more than academic success and test scores — it also shows just how many students are chronically absent in several districts.

The 2009 Report Card on Children and Families, prompted a dialogue among educators, parents and students about why absence rates are so high. Some of the reasons — such as health, transportation and safety challenges — were expected. Others — such as conflicting vacation schedules for elementary and high school districts — caught advocates by surprise.

Solutions have included creating attendance teams, hiring bilingual attendance clerks, and offering incentives to children who make it to school every day.

Paula Ingrum, the project director for the nonprofit group’s report card, explained that the Children’s Initiative examined chronic absence among elementary students to solve the problem from the beginning, when the effects are immediately evident.

The report card looked at elementary students who attend less than 95 percent of school days — missing about nine days a year. About one in four students missed that much school, with the poorest attendance rate in kindergarten in the 2008-2009 school year.

Reporting on chronic absence rates has led the community to recognize the growing trend of students who are constantly missing school and therefore losing out on their education. The Children’s Initiative began working with eight school districts to address the problem. The nonprofit interviewed school officials and parents, asking them why these students continually missing school.

In 2009, the San Diego Unified School District launched an “Attendance Means Everything” campaign and also started producing a newsletter, located on the SDUSD attendance website.

In the Julian Union School District, 37 percent of students at the district’s only elementary school were missing too much school in the 2007-2008 academic year. Now, that figure is below 5 percent. At the same time, test scores rose.

The Children’s Initiative worked with the superintendent and the school principal to develop an action plan based on focus groups with school staff and parents.

They identified several barriers to good attendance, including transportation hassles with half-day kindergarten, vacation schedules that didn’t align with the high school district’s calendar and extended vacations traditionally taken by Latino families at Christmas. To address these they:

  • Synchronized the elementary school calendar with the high school district so families did not miss school because their children had different vacation days.
  • Extended the winter break to three weeks to accommodate the needs of the Latino families.
  • Reinstated an incentive program for on-time attendance that takes advantage of the motivation created by interclass competition. The school promised a pizza party to the first class with enough days of perfect attendance to spell out the word Perfect Punctuality.
  • Provided information on attendance is now a prominent component of conversations and meetings with parents as well as the school newsletter. A large wooden sign indicating whether attendance is improving greets everyone who enters the school.

Julian Unified’s experience reflects many of the common explanations for excessive absences, which also include health challenges, safety concerns, and family issues such as chronic disease, mental health issues, economic hardships, or violence at home. Students also mentioned trouble with bullies, gangs, lack of bus stops, and bad weather.

The Children’s Initiative has identified overall findings of their research that could potentially help schools reel in students. Schools should:

  • Monitor weekly or monthly attendance data
  • Make attendance a school-wide priority
  • Put principals in leadership roles on attendance teams
  • Implement attendance improvement plan.
  • Improve communication with parents
  • Offer short-term incentives for students to attend school and bring up their attendance rate