Hayward Unified School District in California’s Bay Area knew that many of its students were missing too much instructional time. But when it came to moving beyond case-by-case intervention and addressing the “attendance problem” more comprehensively across the district, Hayward officials needed some support.

The district serves more than 21,000 students across 21 elementary schools, five middle schools, four high schools (including an alternative institution), an adult school and a preschool child development center. Hayward’s student body is 60 percent Latino, 13 percent African-American, 8 percent Asian students, 7 percent Filipino students, 6 percent White, 4 percent Pacific Islander students, and 2 percent are multiracial. About 70 percent of students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunch. Hayward traditionally has ranked among Alameda County’s highest in truancy rates. Hayward follows a strict definition of truancy, and reports data even when secondary students miss a single class without an excuse during the day.

“We’ve been promoting attendance awareness for years but in many ways we were constrained in how we could analyze the data and put it in context,” said HUSD Child Welfare and Attendance Director Andrew Kevy, a 20-year veteran of the district. “We focused on ADA and truancy because these are traditional measures and we could readily access these numbers. We knew certain kids weren’t coming to class regularly, but struggled to see the big picture.”

In 2013, that focus shifted. Through a partnership with Alameda County Health Care Service Agency, Hayward began to analyze chronic absenteeism, a different method of measuring attendance that takes into account both excused and unexcused absences. Kevy embraced the idea that “an absence is an absence; they all interrupt student learning.”

The shift prompted school officials to rethink the way the district collects data, delivers services, trains school staff and evaluates its success. It has also led to a community-wide effort engaging businesses, police officers, city leaders and parents.

The work began with the Alameda County Health Care Service Agency recruiting Attendance Works to assist the district with analyzing data. The analysis found that for the 2011-12 academic year, 15.7 percent of HUSD’s students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of the school year. African-American students and students with disabilities were disproportionately chronically absent, while Latino students represented the largest number of chronically absent students.

More disturbing, the analysis showed that the rate of chronic absenteeism was trending upward. Early elementary grades had higher rates of chronic absence with a slight improvement in upper elementary grades. Rates jumped in middles and jumped again in high school.

Kevy was surprised by the findings, particularly the grade distribution. Accustomed to dealing with truancy, which only considers unexcused absences, Kevy assumed chronic absenteeism rates would increase as each grade level. He was surprised to find that the kindergarten and first grade absence rates were the highest in elementary school and similar to high school freshman.

Initially, the data was shared with district office administrators and principals. Later that spring, Kevy and his colleagues shared the findings with the Hayward Board of Education.

The Board and district staff then began using this new additional metric to focus their efforts to improve student attendance. Their approach emphasized the following key ingredients:

Positive Messaging – In 2013, the Board of Education passed a resolution celebrating Attendance Awareness Month. The district began reaching out to families of entering kindergartners, emphasizing the importance of attending school every day. A collaboration among the district, the City of Hayward, and the Hayward Area Recreation and Parks department also furthered the daily attendance message community-wide. Staff from area high schools, the CWA office and the Hayward Police Department enlisted local businesses to promote good attendance and advance truancy intervention by putting up decals in store and business windows announcing their support of the initiative. Hayward is also adopting positive attendance messages available on the Attendance Works website such as “Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow.” Building a culture of success is the goal, and with that in mind, district Superintendent Stan Dobbs incorporates attendance into his “Made In Hayward” messaging campaign, which emphasizes local pride in education, graduation, and preparation for college or career.

Actionable Data – Regular access to data is fundamental in improving student success. Because chronic absenteeism is a relatively new concept, very few commercially available Student Information System offer customized reports for this data. In 2013, Hayward’s SIS was not adequate for tracking and monitoring chronically absent students. The HUSD began its partnership with Attendance Works to better understand the dynamics around chronic absenteeism and to take advantage of the organization’s ability to disaggregate data in meaningful ways the district had previously not been able to generate. HUSD has adopted a new SIS for the 2014-15 academic year, but is still in the process of learning that system’s capacity to generate meaningful data related to attendance and chronic absenteeismDespite these challenges, Hayward was able to generate chronic absence reports using free data tools from Attendance Works. Kevy briefed school administrators using the District Attendance Tracking Tool (DATT) reports in fall of 2014, followed by school-level reports from the School Attendance Tracking Tool (SATT) in October 2014. The DATT and SATT reports allowed district leaders to see overall levels of chronic absence, where it was most concentrated (by school, by grade, by student sub-groups) and, most importantly, provided lists of students with a history of chronic absence.

In addition, Hayward generates truancy and excessive absence letters through Attention to Attendance, a web-based program offered by Schools Innovation and Achievement (SI&A). In California, truancy notifications are sent to parents to alert them when a child has either been absent three days without a valid excuse or is late to class by 30 minutes or more. Letters help alert parents that their child may be missing school without their permission.

Capacity Building – The district has set aside significant funding to improve community awareness of the importance of attendance in its Local Control Accountability Plan. The district is also working to expand staff capacity to address the various causes of chronic absence. At the school site level, Coordination of Services Teams bring school and community resources together to ensure that students are referred and connected to necessary services and supports. To address health and behavioral (mental) health concerns, the district draws upon its longstanding partnerships with Alameda County Health Care Services to bring counseling to schools, medical services on campus and in neighborhoods, and to provide portals for families to access health coverage. Plans are being developed to train school staff in Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports and Restorative Justice practices in an effort to reduce suspensions and make schools more safe and welcoming environments. Through its Parent University program, the district aims to engage more parents in school activities and processes to support their children’s school success.

Hayward, like many districts in California, is bombarded by the pace of change affecting public schools. Perhaps the single greatest challenge at this point is finding time to train and equip staff to support key initiatives such as improving attendance.

Shared Accountability – In June 2014, the Hayward Board of Education approved its first Local Control Accountability Plan, which is required under California’s new Local Control Funding Formula. In the LCAP, the HUSD publicly set the goal of reaching less than 5 percent chronic absence in every school, with a 1 percent reduction each year till that goal is achieved. The Board also set the goal of reducing suspensions by 20 percent. Achieving such goals requires the support of parents, guardians, and the community at large. The district is working hard to engage all stakeholders in improving student attendance.

Strategic Partnerships – Hayward Unified is building on a long history of partnering with community and public agencies. Whether in partnership with the City of Hayward’s police Department & their Youth and Family Services Bureau, the Mayor’s Office, the Hayward Area Recreation & Parks Department, or the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, Hayward Unified works closely with various community partners to provide wraparound services to students and families following a full service community schools philosophy.

The latest partnership has been with the local business community. Hayward police school and Hayward district staff asked local store owners not to serve students during school hours. Instead, local store owners were asked to tell students to go to school and learn. For those student who refused, business owners were asked to call the Hayward Police Department, who would then bring truant students back to school.

“The objective is not to arrest them,” said district Superintendent Stan Dobbs. Instead, “we provide services to make sure our students who have fallen down get across the finish line.”

The result? By the end of the 2013-14 school year, the Hayward Unified School District has already begun reducing its rate of chronic absenteeism. Since 2012-2013 school year, the chronic absence rate has dropped by 1.4 percent, from 15.7to 14.3 percent.