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Attorney General's 2013 Report on
California's Elementary School
Truancy & Absenteeism Crisis

Department of Justice Seal

Kamala D. Harris California Attorney General

Message from Attorney General Kamala D. Harris

Executive Summary

Key Terms: At a Glance

Truancy: In California, a student is truant if he/she is absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on 3 occasions in a school year.

Habitual Truancy: A student is habitually truant if he/she is absent without a valid excuse for 5 days during a school year.

Chronic Truancy: A student is chronically truant if he/she is absent without a valid excuse for at least 10% of the school year.

Chronic Absence: In California, chronic absence is typically defined as being absent for any reason (excused or unexcused) for at least 10% of the school year. Thus, in a 175- or 180-day school year, a student who misses 18 days of school or more is chronically absent.

Excused Absence: Valid excuses may include illness, doctor or dentist appointments, personal reasons justified by a parent or guardian and other reasons within the discretion of school administrators.

The Attendance Crisis

Nationwide, approximately 1 in 10 kindergarten and first grade students miss a month of school due to absences.

More than 250,000 elementary school students in California are estimated to miss 10% or more of the school year.

Almost 83,000 California elementary school students have more than 3 weeks of unexcused absences.

20,000 California elementary school children miss 36 days or more of school in a year.

The California Constitution provides every child with the fundamental right to an elementary, middle, and high school education. It is our law. Yet across our state, thousands of elementary school children are denied that right because they never make it to the classroom.

California is facing an attendance crisis, with dire consequences for our economy, our safety, and our children. Truancy and chronic absence occurs in elementary schools across the state, at rates that are deeply troubling.

According to the California Department of Education, 691,470 California elementary school children, or 1 out of every 5 elementary school students, were reported to be truant in the 2011-2012 school year.1California Department of Education, Data Reporting Office, Elementary School Truancy 2011-2012 (the most current data available); report created June 3, 2013. Under California Education Code section 48260, truancy is defined as incurring three unexcused absences or tardies in excess of 30 minutes without a valid excuse during a school year. All further references to statutory authority herein are to California law unless otherwise stated. Statewide, 38% of all truant students are elementary school children.2Ibid.; 691,470 elementary school truants out of 1,829,421 total truants in California for 2011-2012. One school reported that more than 92% of students were truant in the 2011-2012 school year.3Ibid.

Estimates of truancy based on a sample of California school districts paint an even more alarming picture than the truancy statistics reported to the California Department of Education.4Estimates provided by School Innovations & Achievement based on its sample of California school districts. See Appendix B for further information. Those estimates indicate that in the 2012-2013 school year, approximately one million elementary school children in California were truant and almost 83,000 were chronically truant (missing 10% or more of the school year – calculated from the date of enrollment to the current date – due to unexcused absences).5Education Code section 48263.6.

The same sample reveals that hundreds of thousands of students in California are chronically absent from school. Over 250,000 elementary school students missed more than 10% of the school year (over 18 school days); and a shocking 20,000 elementary school children missed 36 days or more of school in a single school year.

Given these disturbing statistics, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris commissioned a study to examine the scope, causes and effects of truancy and absenteeism in California. The study also focused on what law enforcement, parents, educators, non-profits, public agencies and concerned community members can and must do about this problem. The findings are stark. We are failing our children.

Truancy, especially among elementary school students, has long-term negative effects. Students who miss school at an early age are more likely to struggle academically and, in later years, to drop out entirely. One study found that for low-income elementary students who have already missed five days of school, each additional school day missed decreased the student’s chance of graduating by 7%.6Ou, S. R., & Reynolds, A. J. (2008). Predictors of Educational Attainment in the Chicago Longitudinal Study. School Psychology Quarterly, 23(2), 199. Ou and Reynolds attempted to determine the graduation likelihood of a sample of 12 year old students in the Chicago area who were at risk of not completing school due to poverty. Several variables, including number of absences, were significant predictors of high school completion. Absences across the sample ranged from 2 to 17 days missed. Results found that each additional absence above five days missed decreases a student's likelihood of graduation by 7%. If the number of absences of a student is increased from five days missed to 10 days missed, likelihood this student will graduate decreases by 35%. Students with the most absences (17 days absent) thus had a graduation likelihood of only 15% at the age of 12. Lacking an education, these children are more likely to end up unemployed and at risk of becoming involved in crime, both as victims and as offenders.7Assem. Comm. on Pub. Safety, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 1317 ( 2009-2010 Reg. Sess.) as Amended June 16, 2010, pages 7-8.

California Truancy Rates (based on School Innovations & Achievement Data)

982,352 Truant Students

The fiscal and economic impacts of truancy are equally distressing. According to new research conducted for this report, school districts lose $1.4 billion per year by failing to get students to school because school funding is based on student attendance rates. The cost to the state is far greater. Factoring in the costs of incarceration and lost economic productivity and tax revenues, dropouts cost California an estimated $46.4 billion per year.

Truancy is also against the law. California’s Compulsory Education Law requires every child from the age of 6 to 18 to be in school – on time, every day.8Education Code section 48200.

The law also requires that schools and districts track students’ attendance, notify parents when their students miss school, and attempt to work with families to improve attendance. The high rate of truancy in California is an issue of accountability that the Department of Justice will prioritize, and that must be prioritized at every level of education and law enforcement. Our laws and our state’s future demand no less.

2011-2012 Elementary School Truancy Rates9California Department of Education, Data Reporting Office, Elementary School Truancy 2011-2012 (the most current data available); report created June 3, 2013.

All Truancy Rates

Elementary School Truancy Rates & Numbers by County (2011-2012)

County Elementary School Enrollment # of Truant Elementary School Students Elementary School Truancy Rate
Alameda 117,419 27,906 23.8%
Alpine 101 11 10.9%
Amador 2,121 344 16.2%
Butte 17,366 3,509 20.2%
Calaveras 3,184 996 31.3%
Colusa 2,238 217 9.7%
Contra Costa 86,351 24,685 28.6%
Del Norte 2,448 498 20.3%
El Dorado 15,396 3,699 24.0%
Fresno 133,116 28,551 21.4%
Glenn 2,957 250 8.5%
Humboldt 10,858 2,001 18.4%
Imperial 21,694 5,093 23.5%
Inyo 1,581 81 5.1%
Kern 103,111 21,238 20.6%
Kings 17,319 3,725 21.5%
Lake 5,693 1,417 24.9%
Lassen 2,312 483 20.9%
Los Angeles 813,732 166,469 20.5%
Madera 19,045 4,194 22.0%
Marin 17,600 1,884 10.7%
Mariposa 1,153 115 10.0%
Mendocino 6,868 955 13.9%
Merced 32,191 6,666 20.7%
Modoc 852 241 28.3%
Mono 1,010 270 26.7%
Monterey 43,859 7,128 16.3%
Napa 10,147 625 6.2%
Nevada 5,762 1,456 25.3%
County Elementary School Enrollment # of Truant Elementary School Students Elementary School Truancy Rate
Orange 263,584 32,300 12.3%
Placer 34,167 5,405 15.8%
Plumas 1,184 105 8.9%
Riverside 225,896 53,975 23.9%
Sacramento 142,667 28,993 20.3%
San Benito 7,191 1,550 21.6%
San Bernardino 237,144 67,003 28.3%
San Diego 273,706 52,520 19.2%
San Francisco 29,910 6,798 22.7%
San Joaquin 99,761 26,450 26.5%
San Luis Obispo 18,908 5,712 30.2%
San Mateo 49,970 6,465 12.9%
Santa Barbara 39,065 5,314 13.6%
Santa Clara 147,950 21,338 14.4%
Santa Cruz 19,379 5,626 29.0%
Shasta 16,036 3,004 18.7%
Sierra 230 54 23.5%
Siskiyou 3,376 227 6.7%
Solano 36,032 6,687 18.6%
Sonoma 41,604 4,967 11.9%
Stanislaus 61,398 12,255 20.0%
Sutter 13,895 1,449 10.4%
Tehama 6,817 712 10.4%
Trinity 1,230 265 21.5%
Tulare 62,033 10,171 16.4%
Tuolumne 4,586 813 17.7%
Ventura 74,276 12,440 16.7%
Yolo 18,019 3,762 20.9%
Yuba 8,159 403 4.9%

This report concludes that, to be smart on crime, combating truancy must be a core goal of state public safety policy. Given the scope of the problem, all stakeholders must focus on prevention first. They must understand why students are missing school in order to address the underlying issues that create barriers to attendance.

Accordingly, this report outlines a blueprint for stakeholders across the state—parents, educators, schools, law enforcement, community organizations and local and state legislators and policymakers—to prevent and reduce truancy and chronic absenteeism in California schools. It outlines significant and necessary changes to the implementation of state law and local practices in order to effectively measure and reduce truancy, and also identifies best practices and promising programs that can be modeled at every level of the education system—by parents, schools and school districts statewide.

Summary of Key Findings

Harmful Effects of Truancy and Chronic Absence graphic
  1. Truancy and absenteeism in elementary school have far-ranging implications for California’s economy, public safety, and children.

    As discussed above, elementary school truancy and absenteeism impose enormous costs not just on the individual children denied an education, but also on school districts’ budgets, the state’s economic future, and the public’s safety. The following chapters describe these effects in more detail.

  2. Student record systems need repair and upgrade to accurately measure, monitor and respond to truancy.

    California is one of only four states in the country that does not collect individualized student attendance records at the state level.10Chang, Leong, Fothergill, & Dizon Ross (2013). How States Can Advance Achievement by Reducing Chronic Absence, Attendance Works, Policy Paper. (http://www.attendanceworks.org/policy-advocacy/state/state-policy-brief-the-attendance-imperative/). The other three states are Colorado, New York, and Illinois. Ibid. Even at the local level, only half of the school districts that responded to our California School District Leadership Survey ("District Leadership Survey")11See Appendix B for further information on the survey’s methodology. were able to confirm that they track student absence records longitudinally—that is, they track individual students' attendance year after year. The failure to collect, report and monitor real-time information about student attendance renders our most at-risk children – including English learners, foster children and low-income free- and reduced-price lunch students – invisible.

  3. Early intervention – even in severe cases – can get young children back on the right track.

    According to our research, even small improvements in a school or district’s truancy reduction efforts – such as phone calls and meetings with guardians – pay dividends in increased attendance.12Indeed, mere compliance with California truancy laws go a long way on their own. For example, statistics from Ventura and Sonoma counties indicate that less than one-third of parents who receive the first notification that their elementary school child is truant require additional interventions. Truant elementary school students whose attendance improves over time are at a much lower risk for dropping out than students whose truancy continues or develops later into their academic careers. These findings underscore the critical importance of intervention at the earliest possible point in a truant student’s academic career.13Schoeneberger, J. A. (2012). Longitudinal Attendance Patterns: Developing High School Dropouts. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 85(1), 7-14.

Summary of Recommendations14For the complete description and analysis of recommendations, see Chapter 9.

For Schools, Districts, & Counties

  1. Know who is absent and why by collecting individualized attendance records and using those records to inform real-time intervention strategies.15For a more complete analysis on records collection and intervention strategies see Chapter 7.

    Schools and districts should track individualized attendance in real-time. Only with this evidence can officials track who is absent, why and how often. Access to this information in real-time makes it possible for a school to identify, and intervene in, an attendance problem quickly and effectively. Establishing an effective record system is not difficult – districts can turn to nonprofit resources like Attendance Works or private companies like School Innovations & Achievement, among others.

    A system should have the capacity to:

    1. Track excused and unexcused absences for individual students;
    2. Connect individual student attendance records to other personal, academic and behavioral records (e.g., academic achievement merits, race/ethnicity, gender, English learner status, etc.);
    3. Track interventions for individual students (e.g., notification of truancy letters, truancy meetings, home visits, etc.), and compare a student’s attendance before and after the intervention; and,
    4. Record and track the above information for individual students over time, even after they change schools.
  2. With the first unexcused absence, intervene with the family by sending letters, making phone calls and conducting home visits.

    Use the attendance records collected to establish connections with students and families, beginning with the first unexcused absence. Research indicates that, not only is there rarely intervention at the first unexcused absence, not all school districts are even complying with state truancy notification laws – which begin with the third unexcused absence or tardy. These notices are required because they are effective at reducing truancies.16For example, as noted above statistics from Ventura and Sonoma counties indicate that less than one-third of parents who receive the first notification that their elementary school child is truant require additional interventions. Moreover, truancy is an early warning that students may face more severe attendance issues, and may have many additional excused absences on top of their unexcused absences.17Estimates from School Innovations & Achievement indicate that 95% of elementary school students who are chronically absent are also truant. Therefore, truancy can be used as an early warning and trigger for necessary intervention before a student’s attendance issues worsen. It is essential to consistently and promptly comply with these legally-mandated truancy notification requirements. But schools, districts, and counties should go beyond the legal requirements and reach out to families early and often to address a child’s attendance problem. Best practices include monitoring and responding every time a child misses school—both excused and unexcused. By focusing on prevention and early intervention like letters, calls, and home visits, schools and districts can help students before referrals to more costly intervention strategies are necessary.

  3. Formally collaborate with local agencies and organizations to engage hard-to-reach students and families.

    Formal, ongoing partnerships with other public agencies and community- and faith-based organizations are essential to help families address the underlying factors contributing to truancy.

    Creating and maintaining an active local School Attendance Review Board (SARB) is a particularly effective way to develop and maintain formal, institutional collaboration and to maximize scarce resources. An effective SARB functions as the formal nexus between schools, county services and law enforcement, providing an opportunity for stakeholders to collaborate and develop a personalized approach to preventing truancy and chronic absence. Other successful formal programs include robust mediation programs designed to uncover the root issues underlying the truancy and to provide referrals for social services.

    A SARB or other formal attendance program should include these essential functions:18Derived from the State of California Model SARB Recognition Program 2012-2013, Instructions & Application. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ai/sb/modelrecognition.asp. Additional components of Model SARBs are available on that site.

    • Provide broad and effective collaboration with the SARB representatives from the groups identified in California Education Code section 48321 19See Appendix C for excerpts of California statutes. who can combine their expertise and resources on behalf of the students referred to them. County SARBs should work with and encourage collaboration among the local SARBs and agencies in the county.
    • Composition of County SARB*<br/>*Education Code Section 48321(a)(2)

    • Identify a broad base of community resources, such as mental health or social service agencies, to provide applicable referrals for families and students. County SARBs should encourage local SARBs to maintain a continuing and expanding inventory of resources and coordinate and improve county-level services.
    • Identify attendance or suspension patterns (including disparities among certain populations within a community) that could be addressed with prevention strategies or interventions prior to a SARB meeting, and ensure that any interventions are carried out at the school level prior to the SARB referral.
    • Ensure the school or district provides sufficient documentation of the case that includes the steps already taken to ensure that students who need referrals are identified and referred to the appropriate resources.
    • Ensure that SARB leadership follows up on individual cases to make sure families actually received the necessary services.
    • Provide the students and families with the opportunity to discuss the case during the SARB conference, and ensure that the family is involved in developing solutions that incorporate the strengths of the family and the assets of the student.
  4. Design and implement a program to communicate that school attendance is important, and it’s the law.

    Many families do not prioritize attendance because they may not appreciate the high marginal value of every school day, the dangers elementary school truancy and absenteeism create for their child’s long term success and opportunities, and that school attendance is legally required. Simple, effective communication of these basic messages can often address, or prevent, attendance problems. Successful programs that communicate the importance of attendance and the state’s compulsory education laws rely on correspondence with families, partnerships with parenting classes and mentorship programs, public awareness campaigns, clear attendance policies, and attendance incentive programs.

  5. Prioritize attendance under the new Local Control Funding Formula.

    The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) – a change in California law that provides a new system for funding public schools in the state – offers several opportunities for schools and districts to create new, or enhance existing, programs to improve elementary school attendance. These include using LCFF supplemental and concentration funds for attendance-related efforts, and strategies to reduce both truancy and chronic absenteeism in Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) for all sub-groups including by gender.

  6. Critically assess any school policies that remove students from the classroom.

    Schools and districts should closely examine any policies with an adverse effect on attendance. For example, truancy should not be a basis for suspending a child, as the result is counterproductive. More broadly, school discipline policies should, where possible, keep a child in the classroom or, if necessary, in an alternative learning environment.

For Law Enforcement & District Attorneys

Truancy Intervention Steps

Truancy Intervention Steps
  1. District Attorneys (DAs) should participate on local SARBs or other formal attendance collaborations.

    Early intervention by law enforcement should be supportive, not punitive, and, done effectively, will save significant resources by avoiding the need for greater intervention measures like prosecution. Successful early interventions are rooted in relationships with school districts as well as with community and faith-based organizations, which offer needed services as well as an additional level of comfort for the families. DA participation on local SARBs, in truancy mediations, or other formal attendance collaborations can be especially effective. Also effective: sending a letter on official DA letterhead to parents about their obligations regarding school attendance.

  2. After school and county officials have done all of the required intervention and outreach, prosecution may be appropriate in the most severe cases of chronic truancy.

    Truancy is against the law in California, and there must be appropriate consequences and accountability for breaking the law. When all previous intervention steps have failed despite the school and district’s best efforts, prosecution of the most severe cases of truancy can provide an effective forum in which to identify and remove barriers to attendance, including mental and physical health challenges, substance abuse, and housing and financial instability.

  3. Accept prosecution referrals for parents of chronically truant elementary school children.

    Prosecutors’ offices vary as to whether they accept truancy prosecution referrals at all or limit referrals to older students. Given the long-term negative effects of elementary school truancy, we recommend that prosecutors accept referrals for truancy prosecutions of parents when an elementary school child is involved.

  4. Identify best practices in prosecution.

    The state’s prosecutors, working with the Attorney General, should develop and adopt best practices to ensure consistency and effectiveness in preventing and addressing truancy. These practices should include early intervention to address attendance issues so that the bulk of cases can be screened and resolved quickly, leaving only a small number of cases to be prosecuted.

For Advocates, Community- and Faith-Based Organizations, Foundations, & Private Sector Partners

  1. Organizations that provide family-support services should add school attendance campaigns to their existing programs.

    Mental and physical health problems in students and parents, housing and/or financial instability, parental substance abuse, and other family crises all are significant drivers of student absence in elementary schools. Those organizations that provide services to address any of these key factors underlying truancy should incorporate school attendance-improvement messages and strategies into their existing programs that work with families. Examples include parenting classes, mentorship programs, and after-school programs.

  2. Funders should finance new programs to improve attendance.

    For entities with funding resources, establish sources for public, private and nonprofit attendance-improvement projects. This will help prioritize getting young children to school daily and on time.

  3. Private-sector partners should contribute to incentive programs.

    Private-sector partners should collaborate with schools to offer incentive programs to encourage and reward improved attendance.

For Policymakers

  1. Use the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) to ensure accountability for attendance.

    Attendance-related measures – including measures of truancy, habitual truancy, chronic truancy and chronic absence20See Appendix A for definitions of these terms. – should be key components of accountability and the templates for LCAPs for districts under the new LCFF, so that districts have incentives to give attendance the priority attention it deserves.

  2. Modernize the state’s student records collection system.

    California does not collect individual student attendance records on a statewide basis. Consequently, the bulk of the information released in this report had to be assembled on a school-by-school, district-by-district, or county-by-county basis. Across the state, we cannot accurately measure first truancies, habitual and chronic truancy, and chronic absence, or their varying effects. To remedy this, California should ensure that student attendance records are included in the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS),21For more information on CALPADS see http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/sp/cl/. the state’s student database, in a form subject to regular reports at the district, school, and student levels.

  3. Require more comprehensive reporting of SARB activities.

    SARBs can be an effective forum to address truancy by offering guardians the comprehensive services they need, while holding families accountable for a child’s attendance. But the legally-mandated reporting requirements of a SARB’s activities are minimal and what reporting is required only goes to the county superintendent, i.e., county offices of education.22Education Code section 48273. County offices of education are not required to, and generally do not, pass along those reports of SARB activities to the state. California lawmakers should create a mechanism for ensuring that SARBs compile more comprehensive records regarding their activities, membership, and effectiveness; report such information to the state; and make the information publicly available. Only this way will we all benefit from effective local practices and be in a position to offer recommendations to improve less efficient ones.

  4. Include attendance rates in a school’s Academic Performance Index (API) score.

    Policymakers should consider making school truancy and absence rates a factor in the school’s API score. A school’s score on the API indicates the school’s overall performance level. Including truancy and attendance rates as part of the API score will provide a major incentive for localities to prioritize attendance.

However we examine California’s truancy and absenteeism crisis – the economy, public safety or a child’s wellbeing – the price of elementary school truancy to our state is far too high. Fortunately, we have identified easy steps schools, districts, parents, law enforcement, policymakers, and private partners can take to get our kids to school. The Attorney General’s office looks forward to working with stakeholders across the state to reduce truancy and absenteeism in every elementary school in California.

Introduction

Truancy and Chronic Absence Are at Crisis Levels in California Schools

Key Terms: At a Glance

Truancy: In California, a student is truant if he/she is absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on 3 occasions in a school year.

Habitual Truancy: A student is habitually truant if he/she is absent without a valid excuse for 5 days during a school year.

Chronic Truancy: A student is chronically truant if he/she is absent without a valid excuse for at least 10% of the school year.

Chronic Absence: In California, chronic absence is typically defined as being absent for any reason (excused or unexcused) for at least 10% of the school year. Thus, in a 175- or 180-day school year, a student who misses 18 days of school or more is chronically absent.

Excused Absence: Valid excuses may include illness, doctor or dentist appointments, personal reasons justified by a parent or guardian and other reasons within the discretion of school administrators.

High truancy rates are a serious problem in California elementary schools. During the 2011-2012 school year, close to 30% of all public school students in California were classified as truant. Nearly 40% of these more than 1.8 million truant students were in elementary school.23California Department of Education, Elementary School Truancy 2011-2012, Data Reporting Office (the most current data available); report created June 3, 2013. That translates to more than 690,000 children in kindergarten through sixth grade who were considered truant due to unexcused absences and tardiness, or roughly 20% of all elementary students.24Ibid.

Truancy rates range from elementary schools who report no truant students, to one school where more than 92% of students were truant in the 2011-2012 school year. Almost 2,000, or 30%, of elementary schools in California have a truancy rate between 20 and 40%.25Ibid. See also Chapter 4 below, which discusses records collection, for more information on why truancy rates do not provide a complete picture of school attendance. As shown in Figure 0.1, nearly 10% of California elementary schools have a truancy rate of more than 40%.

Source: California Department of Education (CDE). This table includes data for all 5,786 California elementary schools.

Those are just the official numbers that the state is able to currently track. Data shared with us by School Innovations & Achievement (SI & A)26For more information about SI&A, see http://www.sia-us.com/. provide an even more detailed – and troubling – picture of the public elementary school attendance crisis. In a study of 122,297 K-6 students, nearly 30% were truant – almost 10 percentage points more than were reported to CDE for the previous year – and 2.5% were chronically truant (absent without a valid excuse for 10% or more of the school year) during the 2012-2013 school year.

Elementary school students in California are missing too much school. Truancy is an essential measure of the related and equally destructive problem of chronic absence, which is when a student misses 10% or more of the school year, for any reason. Based on estimates provided by School Innovations & Achievement, the vast majority – 95% – of chronically absent elementary school children are also truant.

And the number of chronically absent elementary school students is alarming. In 2012-2013, an estimated 7.6% of elementary school students were chronically absent.27Figures provided by School Innovations & Achievement based on data from the 2012-2013 school year. All SI&A statistics are based on a sample of elementary schools in their first year of contract with the company. See Appendix B for more information. Additional research indicates that figure can be as high as 10% of elementary school students.28U.C. Davis Center for Regional Change, The Prevalence of Chronic Absence in SCUSD, Brief #1, November 2012. ( http://regionalchange.ucdavis.edu/ourwork/publications/chronic-absence-scusd/Brief1_ChronicAbsencePrevalence) To put this into perspective: we are discussing a 6-year-old in the first grade who has stacked up as many as 20, 30, even 80 absences in a 180-day school year. It is estimated that today, there are over 252,000 children in California who, like this hypothetical first grader, are chronically absent from elementary school.

As shown in Figure 0.2, data provided by School Innovations & Achievement reveals that more than 700 students in its sample were severely chronically absent last year, which means they missed more than 20% of the school year for some combination of excused and unexcused absences. The data also underscore the severity of the attendance crisis: These severely chronically absent students missed more than 36 days of school in a single 180-day school year.

The epidemic of truancy and chronic absenteeism – and its devastating economic, social and public safety impacts – are not unique to California.29Because state law establishes the definition of truancy, the term’s meaning varies from one state to the next. Without a single measure of what defines truancy, it is impossible to determine national truancy rates with complete accuracy. We do know, however, that hundreds of thousands of children are absent from school in the United States every day. Baker, M. L., Sigmon, J. N., & Nugent, M. E. (2001). Truancy Reduction: Keeping Students in School. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Acknowledging that the limited records can produce only an “educated guess” at the scope of the national problem, a JohnJohns Hopkins University report estimated that an annual national rate of 10% chronic absenteeism “seems conservative and it could be as high as 15%, meaning that 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent.” Balfanz, R. and Byrnes, V. (2012), The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools. Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools, Baltimore Md. This is a serious problem across the United States and one in which California can lead the way in finding innovative solutions.

Figure 0.2: High Rates of Truancy and Absenteeism of California Elementary School Students

  Truant Chronically Truant Chronically Absent Severely Chronically Absent
Definition Three or more unexcused absences or tardies in one school year Absent from school without a valid excuse for 10% or more of the school days in one school year Absent from school for any reason (excused or unexcused) for 10% or more of the school days in one school year Absent from school for any reason (excused or unexcused) for 20% or more of the school days in one school year
Number of students (Based on a subsample of 122,297 CA elementary students) 36,211 3,064 9,315 716
Percent of Sample 29.6% 2.5% 7.6% 0.6%

Data includes a subsample of 122,297 elementary school students from California schools.30Data source: School Innovations & Achievement, 2013.

The empty desks in our public elementary school classrooms come at a great cost to California. School districts across the state pay the price in the form of slashed budgets and diminished student achievement. Every taxpayer in California picks up the bill for absenteeism as it results in a tremendous burden on social services and the criminal justice system. In fact, one of the major ripple effects of truancy and chronic absence is juvenile crime, which can lead a young person to drop out of high school and put him or her at risk of gang involvement, substance abuse and incarceration. Public safety in California is profoundly compromised by this attendance crisis.

We also know this crisis has a disproportionate impact on low-income students and many students of color.31Sanchez, M (2012). Truancy and Chronic Absence in Redwood City. Stanford, CA: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.

Elementary school provides a brief window in which to teach children the fundamental skills they will need to lead productive and happy lives. It is how we help to ensure that a child is healthy and his or her basic needs are being met. Elementary school is where we determine whether a child is properly immunized against infectious diseases. It is where we diagnose a child for vision, hearing or learning impairments. It is where we spot and stop abuse. Above all, elementary school is where we build a foundation for academic success and set children on a path to good health and economic security.

The next five chapters explore the harmful effects of truancy and chronic absence, as well as factors that create challenges to regular attendance for many California families. They make clear that truancy and chronic absence require prevention and early intervention to avoid long-term, cumulative effects on children and our state.

Special Project Team

Kamala D. Harris
Attorney General
Brian Nelson Special Assistant Attorney General
Jill Habig Special Assistant Attorney General
Angela Sierra Senior Assistant Attorney General
Nancy A. Beninati Deputy Attorney General
Catherine Z. Ysrael Deputy Attorney General
Kelsey Krausen Education Research Fellow
Jason Lloyd Education Research Fellow
Robert Sumner Legal Analyst
Becca MacLaren Senior Writer/Editor
Joseph Guzman Legal Research Intern
Sophia Areias Legal Research Intern

The recommendations expressed in this report are based on research and input from the staff of the Attorney General’s Special Project Team and office. These recommendations should not be considered as representing the views of any agency or organization that contributed to the report.

Acknowledgments

The Attorney General’s office thanks the many members of the education, law enforcement, judicial and non-profit communities who generously gave their time and insight to discuss ways to combat the crisis of truancy and chronic absence in California’s elementary schools. The best practices and recommendations outlined in this report reflect the hard work and dedication of the full range of community partners engaged in improving attendance for California’s youngest students. We acknowledge and thank you for your contributions to this project. Most importantly, we thank you for the work you do every day to help students and their families.

Below is a list of the over 100 schools, school districts, district attorneys, courts, and county offices of education throughout California, as well as non-profit organizations and others, who have contributed to this report.

Contributors from the Education Community
Alameda Unified School District Alhambra Unified School District t
Alpaugh Unified School District Alpine County Office of Education
Bakersfield City School District Baldwin Park Unified School District
Bayshore Preparatory Charter School (San Marcos Unified School District) Blue Lake Union Elementary School District
Buena Park Elementary School District Butte County Office of Education
Cajon Valley Union School District Calaveras County Office of Education
Ceres Unified School District Charter Oak Unified School District
Chula Vista Elementary School District Cienega Union Elementary School District
Contra Costa County Office of Education Corcoran Unified School District
Cutten Elementary School District Cypress School District
Downey Unified School District East Whittier City School District
El Dorado County Office of Education El Segundo Unified School District
Escondido Union School District Empire Union School District
Fieldbrook Elementary School District Freshwater School District
Fresno County Office of Education Glendale Unified School District
Grossmont Union High School District Hawthorne School District
Hemet Unified School District Hermosa Beach City School District
Humboldt County Office of Education Inyo County Office of Education
Kern County Office of Education Keyes Union School District
Kings County Office of Education Kings River-Hardwick School District
Kit Carson Union School District La Mesa-Spring Valley School District
Lakeside Union Elementary School District (Kings County) Lakeside Union School District (San Diego County)
Lancaster School District Lawndale Elementary School District
Lemon Grove School District Leonardo da Vinci Health Sciences Charter School (San Diego County)
Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District Long Beach Unified School District
Los Angeles County Office of Education Los Angeles Unified School District
Manhattan Beach Unified School District Maple Creek Elementary School District
Mattole Unified School District Modesto City Elementary School District
Mono County Office of Education Montebello Unified School District
Monterey County Office of Education Mountain Empire Unified School District
Muroc Joint Unified School District Oakley Union Elementary School District
Oceanside Unified School District Oakland Unified School District
Orange County Office of Education Redondo Beach Unified School District
Reyn Franca School (Stanislaus County) Riverbank Unified School District
Sacramento County Office of Education Salida Union School District
San Joaquin County Office of Education San Luis Obispo County Office of Education
San Bernardino County Office of Education San Diego County Office of Education
San Diego Unified School District San Francisco City and County Unified School District
Santa Maria-Bonita School District San Mateo County Office of Education
Santa Barbara County Office of Education Saugus Union School District
Shasta County Office of Education Sonoma County Office of Education
South Bay Union School District Southern Humboldt Unified School District
Stockton Unified School District Sylvan Union School District
Turlock Unified School District Ukiah Unified School District
Vista Unified School District Ventura County Office of Education
Waterford Unified School District Westside Union School District
Willits Unified School District Wilsona Elementary School District
Woodland Joint Unified School District Yuba County Office of Education
Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District
Contributors from Law Enforcement Agencies
Alameda County District Attorney California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
California District Attorneys Association Imperial County District Attorney
Kern County District Attorney Los Angeles County District Attorney
Los Angeles County Probation Department Los Angeles Police Department
Monterey County District Attorney Nevada County District Attorney
Orange County District Attorney Riverside County District Attorney
Sacramento County District Attorney San Bernardino County District Attorney
San Diego County District Attorney San Diego County Probation Department
San Francisco City and County District Attorney San Mateo County District Attorney
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Siskiyou County District Attorney
Solano County District Attorney Ventura County District Attorney
Yolo County District Attorney
Contributors from the Court System
Alameda County Superior Court San Diego County Superior Court
San Francisco County Superior Court
Additional Contributors
Attendance Works Carstens Elementary School
Check & Connect Children Now
City Year Los Angeles Fight Crime: Invest in Kids
Lincoln Child Center New York City Mayor’s Office
Parents from the Alameda County Truancy Court School Innovations & Achievement
The Children’s Initiative Youth Adult Awareness Program (YAAP) Participants

Special Thanks

This report benefits from the counsel and support of the Special Project Team and many other contributors involved with the California Attorney General’s Truancy project.

Attorney General Harris is grateful to our invaluable partners – The California Endowment, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, and Children Now – for their generous support for the truancy and chronic absence symposium and this report. We also want to thank Hedy Chang, Director of Attendance Works, for her leadership as a champion for improving school attendance in California and nationally.

In addition, special thanks are extended to: Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction; Barrie Becker, California State Director, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids; Brad Strong, Senior Director, Education Policy, Children Now; Barbara Raymond, Director, Schools & Neighborhoods Policy, The California Endowment; Susan Cook, Chief Operating Officer, School Innovations & Achievement; Jeff Owen, Vice President-Operations, School Innovations & Achievement; Jeremiah Johnson, Director-IT, School Innovations & Achievement; Chelsea Nentwig, Operations Manager - A2A, School Innovations & Achievement; the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA); Gordon Jackson, Assistant Superintendent, California Department of Education; David Kopperud, State School Attendance Review Board Chairperson, California Department of Education; Dan Sackheim, Education Programs Consultant, Educational Options, Student Support, and American Indian Education Office, California Department of Education; Arlene Matsuura, Administrator, School Fiscal Services Division, California Department of Education; Marc Riera, Data Reporting Office, California Department of Education; Margaret Weston, Research Fellow, Public Policy Institute of California; Dr. Heather M. Rose, Associate Professor, UC Davis School of Education; Larry Chavarria, Community Resource Manager, Avenal State Prison; Peter Goldwasser, Chief Program Officer, Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, New York City Mayor’s Office; The Honorable Gloria F. Rhynes, Presiding Judge, Alameda County Superior Court; Dee Alimbini, Stockton Unified School District, Administrator, Child Welfare and Attendance; Amanda Jimenez, Alameda Truancy Court Parent; Teresa Drenick, Assistant District Attorney, Alameda County; Andryanna Tesoro, Program Supervisor, Lincoln Child Center; Tony Thurmond, Senior Director of Community and Government Relations, Lincoln Child Center; Allison Becwar, Chief Program Officer, Lincoln Child Center; Jennifer Gomeztrejo, Consultant II, Los Angeles County Office of Education, Child Welfare & Attendance; Susan Chaides, Community Health Contact, Los Angeles County Office of Education; Dr. Laurel Bear, Director, Alhambra Unified School District, Gateway to Success; Meghan Paynter, City Year Los Angeles Corps Member; Desiree Wooden, Teacher, Chula Vista Elementary School District; Robert Mueller, Director, Student Attendance, Safety & Well-Being, San Diego County Office of Education; Laura McNair, Director, Bright Future Early Learning Center, Community Child Care Council of Alameda County; Jody London, Oakland Unified School District Board of Directors.

Finally, thanks to the following individuals for their contributions to this report: Jennifer Bunshoft and Michael L. Newman, Deputy Attorneys General; Brianna Schofield, former Special Deputy Attorney General; and Erin Delaney and Gabrielle Velkes, Department of Justice Interns.

  1.    California Department of Education, Data Reporting Office, Elementary School Truancy 2011-2012 (the most current data available); report created June 3, 2013. Under California Education Code section 48260, truancy is defined as incurring three unexcused absences or tardies in excess of 30 minutes without a valid excuse during a school year. All further references to statutory authority herein are to California law unless otherwise stated.
  2.    Ibid.; 691,470 elementary school truants out of 1,829,421 total truants in California for 2011-2012.
  3.    Ibid.
  4.    Estimates provided by School Innovations & Achievement based on its sample of California school districts. See Appendix B for further information.
  5.    Education Code section 48263.6.
  6.    Ou, S. R., & Reynolds, A. J. (2008). Predictors of Educational Attainment in the Chicago Longitudinal Study. School Psychology Quarterly, 23(2), 199. Ou and Reynolds attempted to determine the graduation likelihood of a sample of 12 year old students in the Chicago area who were at risk of not completing school due to poverty. Several variables, including number of absences, were significant predictors of high school completion. Absences across the sample ranged from 2 to 17 days missed. Results found that each additional absence above five days missed decreases a student's likelihood of graduation by 7%. If the number of absences of a student is increased from five days missed to 10 days missed, likelihood this student will graduate decreases by 35%. Students with the most absences (17 days absent) thus had a graduation likelihood of only 15% at the age of 12.
  7.    Assem. Comm. on Pub. Safety, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 1317 ( 2009-2010 Reg. Sess.) as Amended June 16, 2010, pages 7-8.
  8.    Education Code section 48200.
  9.    California Department of Education, Data Reporting Office, Elementary School Truancy 2011-2012 (the most current data available); report created June 3, 2013.
  10.    Chang, Leong, Fothergill, & Dizon Ross (2013). How States Can Advance Achievement by Reducing Chronic Absence, Attendance Works, Policy Paper. (http://www.attendanceworks.org/policy-advocacy/state/state-policy-brief-the-attendance-imperative/). The other three states are Colorado, New York, and Illinois. Ibid.
  11.    See Appendix B for further information on the survey’s methodology.
  12.    Indeed, mere compliance with California truancy laws go a long way on their own. For example, statistics from Ventura and Sonoma counties indicate that less than one-third of parents who receive the first notification that their elementary school child is truant require additional interventions.
  13.    Schoeneberger, J. A. (2012). Longitudinal Attendance Patterns: Developing High School Dropouts. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 85(1), 7-14.
  14.    For the complete description and analysis of recommendations, see Chapter 9.
  15.    For a more complete analysis on records collection and intervention strategies see Chapter 7.
  16.    For example, as noted above statistics from Ventura and Sonoma counties indicate that less than one-third of parents who receive the first notification that their elementary school child is truant require additional interventions.
  17.    Estimates from School Innovations & Achievement indicate that 95% of elementary school students who are chronically absent are also truant. Therefore, truancy can be used as an early warning and trigger for necessary intervention before a student’s attendance issues worsen.
  18.    Derived from the State of California Model SARB Recognition Program 2012-2013, Instructions & Application. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ai/sb/modelrecognition.asp. Additional components of Model SARBs are available on that site.
  19.    See Appendix C for excerpts of California statutes.
  20.    See Appendix A for definitions of these terms.
  21.    For more information on CALPADS see http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/sp/cl/.
  22.    Education Code section 48273.
  23.    California Department of Education, Elementary School Truancy 2011-2012, Data Reporting Office (the most current data available); report created June 3, 2013.
  24.    Ibid.
  25.    Ibid. See also Chapter 4 below, which discusses records collection, for more information on why truancy rates do not provide a complete picture of school attendance.
  26.    For more information about SI&A, see http://www.sia-us.com/.
  27.    Figures provided by School Innovations & Achievement based on data from the 2012-2013 school year. All SI&A statistics are based on a sample of elementary schools in their first year of contract with the company. See Appendix B for more information.
  28.    U.C. Davis Center for Regional Change, The Prevalence of Chronic Absence in SCUSD, Brief #1, November 2012. ( http://regionalchange.ucdavis.edu/ourwork/publications/chronic-absence-scusd/Brief1_ChronicAbsencePrevalence)
  29.    Because state law establishes the definition of truancy, the term’s meaning varies from one state to the next. Without a single measure of what defines truancy, it is impossible to determine national truancy rates with complete accuracy. We do know, however, that hundreds of thousands of children are absent from school in the United States every day. Baker, M. L., Sigmon, J. N., & Nugent, M. E. (2001). Truancy Reduction: Keeping Students in School. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Acknowledging that the limited record can produce only an “educated guess” at the scope of the national problem, a JohnJohns Hopkins University report estimated that an annual national rate of 10% chronic absenteeism “seems conservative and it could be as high as 15%, meaning that 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent.” Balfanz, R. and Byrnes, V. (2012), The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools. Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools, Baltimore Md.
  30.    Data source: School Innovations & Achievement, 2013.
  31.    Sanchez, M (2012). Truancy and Chronic Absence in Redwood City. Stanford, CA: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.