CHAPTER 9: Recommendations To Reduce Truancy & Absenteeism In California

By implementing a few key strategies, educators, community organizations, law enforcement and policymakers can make real and lasting improvements to elementary school attendance. We are at a critical turning point for public education in California. The new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) will provide opportunities for state and local stakeholders to restore funding and focus to programs designed to improve attendance. We must seize this moment to turn the tide on elementary school truancy and absenteeism in California and ensure that every child obtains the education guaranteed by our state constitution.

To leverage the momentum of these new funding opportunities, this chapter offers recommendations to dramatically reduce truancy and chronic absenteeism in our elementary schools. Many of these recommendations do not require a change in current law or additional resources. However, some changes will require state-level coordination and adjustments to implementation of policy. They fall into four categories of stakeholders: 1) schools, school districts, and county offices of education; 2) community-based organizations and foundations; 3) law enforcement and district attorneys; and, 4) policymakers.

Schools, School Districts, & County Offices of Education

  1. Know who is absent and why by collecting individualized attendance records and using that information to inform real-time intervention strategies.228For a more complete analysis on records collection and intervention strategies see Chapters 4 and 7.

As described in Chapter 4, an integrated tracking system is necessary for schools and districts to identify and address truancy and chronic absenteeism. It is critical to understand a student’s attendance in relationship to other personal, academic and behavioral factors. Actively reviewing and analyzing attendance records allows a district to spot trends – in an individual student’s attendance over time, as well as within families and schools. Such record-keeping also makes it possible to spot attendance trends related to a time period, demographics, a particular neighborhood or a health issue like asthma or a lice outbreak. Without this critical information, educators cannot easily identify and address the challenges that our most vulnerable and at-risk face in getting to school. In essence, the children most desperately in need of help can remain invisible.

A comprehensive tracking system allows schools and districts to target their limited resources more effectively by focusing on the source and scope of an attendance problem. It also allows a school or district to build a complete record of the child’s attendance issues and the school’s efforts to address them. This record is important to determine what form of intervention is most effective, and to identify the serious cases in which law enforcement and district attorneys should exercise their authority to address a student’s attendance issue. Finally, a tracking system can yield vital information for researchers and policymakers to better assess the causes and effects of truancy and chronic absence, and refine our strategies to combat the problem. Establishing an effective system is not difficult – districts can turn to nonprofit resources like Attendance Works or private companies like School Innovations & Achievement, among others.

An effective system has 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, special needs status, free and reduced price lunch status, foster status, zip code and suspension and expulsion information);
  3. Track interventions for individual students (e.g., notification of truancy letters, truancy meetings, home visits, SART and SARB referrals, district attorney referrals, 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.

    For example, a school or district should be able to identify that a fourth grader was chronically absent in the first and second grades, and that the student’s attendance improved in third grade after being referred to the SARB – even if the student transferred to a different school within the district. It should also be possible to track that student’s academic achievement over time.

Equally as important as the capabilities of a tracking system is how a school or district uses the information that it collects. To have an impact, an effective tracking system must be updated in real time. Schools and districts need to monitor the records on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to identify at-risk students and promptly address any emerging problems leading to absenteeism (for example, a lice outbreak or an uptick in violence in a particular neighborhood). Some districts choose to build their own systems to monitor the results, while others contract with private companies to provide those services.

  1. With the first unexcused absence, intervene with the family by sending letters, making phone calls and conducting home visits.

As noted above, a good record-keeping system is merely a means to an end. The information collected and monitored by schools and districts should be used to establish new connections with students and families who are in need of services or support to improve attendance. This communication should start with the student’s first unexcused absence. We recommend early, personal and persistent interaction with families to prevent a child’s early attendance issues from becoming a full-blown crisis.

Research indicates that, not only is there not intervention at the first 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. 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.229Estimates from School Innovations & Achievement suggest that 95% of elementary school students who are chronically absent are also truant. Therefore, truancy can be used as an early warning that intervention is needed 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 to 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 and focusing on prevention and early intervention like letters, calls, and home visits before making referrals to more costly intervention strategies.

Chapter 7 includes several best practices for engagement with families.

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

Effective attendance strategies do not rely solely on the resources of an individual school or district. By establishing partnerships with other public agencies and community- and faith-based organizations, schools and districts can better address the root causes of truancy and connect families with the resources they need to solve the underlying problem. In particular, the following strategies are recommended:

  1. Offer wrap-around services to families in a setting that maximizes their ability to take advantage of those services. For example, many districts offer counseling and healthcare services on-site to give families the benefit of “one-stop shopping.” When possible, some districts even provide mobile, at-home services.
  2. Leverage available resources to provide low-cost, high-quality services. Schools cannot solve the problem of truancy and chronic absence alone and must depend on the resources and expertise of outside agencies to ensure that families receive the appropriate services at no- or low-cost. For example, as Chapter 7 noted, some districts have connected with graduate schools to find social work and psychology interns who offer counseling at reduced or no cost at the school site. These interns can provide much-needed counseling to families while fulfilling their necessary clinical hours in a meaningful setting.
  3. Consider establishing formal inter-agency agreements to allow for information-sharing about at-risk children and break down walls between government entities. For example, in Baltimore, the foster care agency has access to attendance records and information on the child’s Emergency Notification card for students coming into the system. The agency attempts to place the child with people he/she knows and to help ensure the child can stay in the same school.230http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/baltimore/data-sharing-with-child-welfare-system/. For a detailed examination of Baltimore’s truancy program see http://www.baltimorecityschools.org/attendance. In addition, the city uses attendance information to trigger school nurse screenings for various health conditions in chronically absent children.231http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Attendance-Best-Practices- Brochure.pdf. Similarly, in San Diego County, the county’s 42 school districts and various county agencies (including the Department of Probation, Juvenile Court, the Health and Human Services, Child Welfare agency, and others) share information such as grades, attendance, last school attended, immunization records, and the like. This information is shared via a secure web-based database called the Foster Youth Student Information System (FY-SIS). With a formal inter-agency agreement, this seamless transfer of information protects children’s privacy and ensures that districts and county agencies can work together to keep foster care children from falling through the cracks.

Formal, ongoing partnerships with other public agencies and community- and faith-based organizations can 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:232Derived from the State of California Model SARB Recognition Program 2012-2013, Instructions & Application. 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 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

    Composition of County SARB

  • 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 schools or districts provide 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.
  • Ensure that the tone of the SARB process is positive – rather than punitive or remedial – so that students and families feel welcomed and comfortable with the process.
  • 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.
  • Comprehensively report SARB records on an annual basis to assist in identifying the scope of the truancy problem and the effectiveness of intervention programs.

  1. 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 under California’s Compulsory Education Law. So simple, effective communication of these basic messages can often address, or prevent, attendance problems. Schools and districts should also communicate to at-risk students and families that every student is valued and wanted in school, from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of high school. Below are several recommended ways to communicate these messages to families and help them build a culture of attendance:

  1. Parenting classes about the importance of regular school attendance and outreach so that parents know how to meet their obligations and understand the policies on excused and unexcused absences;
  2. Mentorship programs for young students;
  3. Public awareness campaigns about the importance of regular attendance; and,
  4. Incentives and rewards for improved attendance

  1. 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 programs or enhance existing ones to improve elementary school attendance. In addition to using the restored funding to reinstate attendance programs or personnel that were eliminated, schools and districts should consider the following:

  1. Use LCFF supplemental and concentration funds for attendance-related efforts. A focus on improving attendance has a well-documented and substantial benefit for at-risk children, such as English learners, foster children and low-income students (those who receive free and reduced price lunch). It is important to focus resources to help students who are most at-risk and impacted by truancy and chronic absenteeism.
  2. Include best practices for reducing truancy and chronic absenteeism in Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs). These plans should include strategies for tracking and reducing both excused and unexcused absences for all sub-groups, including by gender, and should use multiple measures of attendance to trigger interventions (i.e., truancy, habitual truancy, chronic truancy and chronic absenteeism).

  1. 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.233NSBA, 2013; retrieved from http://www.nsba.org/Board-Leadership/Surveys/Out-of-School-Suspension-Policy-Guide/Out-of-School-Suspension-Report.pdf.

For a complete list of best practices, see Chapter 7.

Law Enforcement & District Attorneys

  1. District attorneys (DAs) should participate on local SARBs or other formal attendance collaborations.

Law enforcement and district attorneys should not wait to get involved until a child’s truancy is severe enough to warrant prosecution. Instead, they should establish relationships with school districts and families to encourage attendance and avoid the need for later prosecution. Early intervention by law enforcement should be supportive and educational. To that end, representatives from the district attorney’s office should actively participate in truancy assemblies, in early truancy mediation programs and on local SARBs.

Done effectively, this involvement can 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.

  1. 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. In all cases, district attorneys and law enforcement should maintain a focus on finding and addressing the root causes of truancy and getting children back to school.

  1. 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, prosecutors should accept referrals for truancy prosecutions of parents when an elementary school child is involved. The goal is to convene families to develop solutions to the underlying problem so that children can stay in school and on track from kindergarten through high school.

  1. 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 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.

Advocates, Community- and Faith- Based Organizations, Foundations and 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 and parent engagement programs; child welfare and early learning programs; mentorship programs; education policy reform efforts; after-school programs; and grant programs for at-risk children and families.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 (e.g., donate prizes to be awarded to students and families).

Policymakers

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

Attendance-related measures – including measures of truancy, habitual truancy, chronic truancy and chronic absence – should be key components of the templates for LCAPs under the new LCFF. This will ensure that districts and schools have incentives to dedicate sufficient resources and time to improving attendance.

  1. Modernize the state’s student records system.

California is one of only four states in the nation that fails to collect individual student attendance records on a statewide basis.234Chang, 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 others are Colorado, New York and Illinois. The lack of statewide evidence on this important issue hampers our ability to assess the scope of the problem, and to understand how it affects students. It prevents us from identifying key turning points between minor and more severe consequences of truancy and chronic absence, and most importantly, from developing solutions. To foster greater transparency and accountability across the state, California should ensure that student attendance records are included in CALPADS. Maintaining student-level attendance records on excused and unexcused absences on a statewide basis will allow accurate measures of a first truancy offense, habitual and chronic truancy and chronic absence, along with their varying effects – including the connection between attending and dropping out of high school. Such records should be maintained for the same student over time to allow for research on the effects of truancy and absenteeism throughout a student’s academic career.

  1. Require more comprehensive reporting of SARB activities.

SARBs can be an effective forum to address truancy by offering parents/guardians the comprehensive services they need, while holding families accountable for their child’s attendance. However, the legally-mandated reporting requirements of a SARB’s activities are minimal, and there is no mechanism for ensuring compliance with the law. Counties are not required to, and generally do not, pass along reports of SARB activities to the state. This minimal reporting requirement and lack of enforcement makes it difficult to track SARB activities, SARB-related records and best practices.

California lawmakers should create a mechanism for ensuring that information about how SARBs operate and their effectiveness are reported to the state and publicly available. Only this way will we all benefit from effective local SARBs and be in a position to offer recommendations to improve less effective practices.

  1. Include attendance rates in a school’s Academic Performance Index (API) score.235Education Codesection 52052, subd. (a)(4)(A).

Although state law supports the inclusion of attendance rates in API scores, such information has not yet been added. 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 and including truancy and absence rates as part of that score will provide a major incentive for localities to prioritize attendance.

There are countless worthwhile education policy debates taking place at dinner tables, in schoolhouses, in district and county education board meetings, at rallies and in statehouses across the country. Yet any effort to improve the quality of our nation’s public schools will be ineffective if students are not present to receive that education.

California’s truancy and absenteeism crisis is a call to action for us to do more to ensure all of our state’s children attend school on time, every day, in compliance with state law and priorities. 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. Our economy and public safety – and the future of every public school student in the state – depend on what we do today.

Achievement begins with attendance. Improved test scores and increased graduation results all begin when students are in class, on task and ready to learn. By improving our student attendance rates we have seen many by-products such as: happy and socially confident children, increased self-esteem, a decrease in discipline incidents and increased ADA revenue. - Livermore Unified School District official
  1.    For a more complete analysis on records collection and intervention strategies see Chapters 4 and 7.
  2.    Estimates from School Innovations & Achievement suggest that 95% of elementary school students who are chronically absent are also truant. Therefore, truancy can be used as an early warning that intervention is needed before a student’s attendance issues worsen.
  3.    http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/baltimore/data-sharing-with-child-welfare-system/. For a detailed examination of Baltimore’s truancy program see http://www.baltimorecityschools.org/attendance.
  4.    http://www.attendanceworks.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Attendance-Best-Practices- Brochure.pdf.
  5.    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.
  6.    NSBA, 2013; retrieved from http://www.nsba.org/Board-Leadership/Surveys/Out-of-School-Suspension-Policy-Guide/Out-of-School-Suspension-Report.pdf.
  7.    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 others are Colorado, New York and Illinois.
  8.    Education Codesection 52052, subd. (a)(4)(A).