The Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California, is a leader in tracking and addressing chronic absence, using a city-wide approach that has reduced chronic absence rates from 16 percent in 2005-06 to 11.9 percent in 2013-14. The entire 37,000-plus student school system is working with city agencies and community partners to improve student attendance and bring absentee students back to class.

The California city’s effort began in 2010 with then-Superintendent Tony Smith, and has continued with Superintendent Antwan Wilson, who arrived in July 2014.

When the work began, the district and administrators did not realize the extent to which chronic absence was a problem. At the time, Oakland, like most districts in California, had only been monitoring unexcused absences and average daily attendance.. Unfortunately, personnel to address attendance issues had been cut to the bone due to budgetary challenges. Many schools lacked clerical staff to support attendance and the district office had only two full-time staff to work with all 106 schools.

Data on chronic absence laid the foundation for making improved attendance a strategic priority. An analysis uncovered a wealth of information that has not only helped school and district leaders to 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 organizations, county public health, and philanthropy to turn around attendance in Oakland schools.

This early analysis examined chronic absence rates by racial and ethnic groups, grade level, and school campus. It revealed that elementary school absenteeism is especially high in kindergarten and in particular neighborhoods already challenged by environmental health hazards and poverty. Poor attendance often correlated with foreclosures, poverty, single parenthood and asthma.

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.

A study released in September 2014, Attending School Every Day: Making Progress, Taking Action, updates the data and demonstrates the challenges that the school district faces:

  • Chronic absence is a bigger problem at both ends of Oakland’s K – 12 continuum. In kindergarten, 15 percent of students were chronically absent, as were about 16 percent of 10th and 11th graders. The chronic absence rate in sixth grade was about half that rate.
  • About 18 percent of African American students were chronically absent, a rate more than three times higher than for white and Asian students and nearly twice as high as that for Latinos.
  • English language learners are less likely than their peers to be chronically absent in elementary school, but more likely to miss school in high school.
  • Students in foster care had a 19% rate of chronic absence, and students with disabilities had an 18% rate of chronic absence.
  • Charter schools do not yet track the data, but average daily attendance rates suggest that they face similar problems with absenteeism.
  • Missing school makes it difficult for students to reach academic benchmarks. Students who are chronically absent are less than half as likely to score proficient or advanced on the state reading and mathematics assessments than students who attend school regularly.

The report–prepared by Urban Strategies Council with support from Great Oakland Public Schools, Oakland Public Education Fund, and Attendance Works–highlights several schools that have shown remarkable improvements in student attendance. These include: Garfield Elementary, PLACE @Prescott Elementary, Roosevelt Middle School and West Oakland Middle School.

The report also outlined the good work that the school district has accomplished in recent years.

Putting Actionable Data into the Hands of Staff

Starting in the 2010-11 school year, the district’s Research, Assessment and Data Department 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 in a separate roster, they could see the names of the students at their school who were missing 10 percent or more 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.

Making Attendance a District-Wide Priority

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. The goals are:

  • 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)

The district regularly recognizes schools and principals who are making progress toward these goals. As part of accountability to the Board and the larger community, progress toward the attendance goals is reported in the district’s Balanced Scorecard. The district also makes chronic absence reports publicly available through its website. Oakland Unified has also included specific goals for reducing chronic absence in its Local Control Accountability Plan.

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 for 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. They have created an Attendance Manual that takes the guesswork out and gives clear guidance to staff on what to do to interrupt chronic absence, and when to do it.

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.

Forging Community Partnerships

While much was being done within the school district, vital community partnerships have developed, as well. 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. Under the strong leadership of its co-chairs, County District Attorney Teresa Drenick and OUSD’s Coordinator of Attendance and Discipline Support Services Theresa Clincy, the committee began focusing 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 three years, the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) 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.

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 have been trained to reach out to other parents during the school year with the message that school attendance is vital to their children’s futures. OHA has chosen 7 partner schools and its parent ambassadors mobilize other parents to support their local schools, assist school staff with attendance projects, provide classroom support, and work on safety, health, nutrition, and special events.

OHA has also launched the Family and Education Achievement Project (FEAP) for residents whose children are chronically absent and attend one of the partner schools. FEAP provides families who opt in with prioritized support services including incentives for attendance and school achievement, homework help, and other supports.


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. Schools with the highest rates of chronic absence have been 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. During the first quarter of 2013, the district sponsored 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.

Later in 2013, the school district created a video with NFL running back Marshawn Lynch to inspire better attendance. In September 2014, the Education Cabinet promoted attendance with billboards and a full-page ad in the Oakland Tribune.

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.

Results to date

In fewer than five 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.

Attendance rates have improved steadily: In 2012-13, 69 percent of students had satisfactory attendance, up from 63 percent in 2005-06. That is moving toward the district’s goal of 85 percent of students missing nine or fewer days. At the same, chronic absence fell from 16 percent in 2005-06 to 11.9% in 2013-14—moving toward the 5 percent district goal.

At the school level, the September 2014 analysis found:

  • 19% of schools (15 schools) reduced chronic absence to 5% or less.
  • 23% of schools (18 schools) are nearing this goal with levels between 5% and 10%.
  • 29% of schools (23 schools) are struggling with chronic absence rates of between 10% and 15%.
  • 28% of schools (22 schools) have more than 20% of students chronically absent.

There is still a long way to go before Oakland schools reach their attendance goals. But the school district and the community have a clear sense of their goals and a growing number of stakeholders are working together to reach them.