Attorney General calls for end to elementary school truancy crisis


Students who miss 10 percent of the school year, or roughly 18 days, are more likely to drop out before graduating high school and become victims and/or perpetrators of a crime, according to Attorney General Kamala Harris’ 2013 report on California’s Elementary School Truancy and Absenteeism Crisis.
The report, released for the first time this week and assembled by a 12-member special project team led by Harris, outlines how the high truancy rates are a “serious problem” in California elementary schools.
In California, a student is truant if he/she is absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on three occasions; is habitually truant if he/she is absent without a valid excuse for five days; and is chronically truant if he/she is absent without a valid excuse for at least 10 percent of the school year. Chronic absence is defined when a student is absent, whether excused or unexcused, for 18 days or more in a school year.
According to the California Department of Education, MHUSD’s 2011-12 truancy rate improved dramatically from its previous 42.64 percent in 2010-11, when the district had the second highest truancy rate in the entire county.
“Staff has really stepped up their diligence in meeting with parents and tracking students who are absent and tardy,” said Interim Superintendent Steve Betando for MHUSD.
GUSD’s 2011-12 rate also shows improvement from its previous 28.85 percent from the 2010-11 school year. Superintendent Debbie Flores believes the district’s truancy rate is actually even lower than reported based on what students are included in the state’s truancy formula.
For instance, a student that gets the flu may miss three consecutive days and the parent might not remember to call in and explain why the student is absent. And, even if the student does not miss another day the rest of the year, they are included in the truancy rate, according to Kermit Schrock, who is in charge of Student Assessment and Data Management for GUSD.
Flores said the district, which does send letters home as early as two unexcused absences to alert parents, is more concerned with students who begin to rack up 10 days or more of unexcused absences.
The 2011-12 truancy rates are as follows:
-MHUSD: 13.9 percent, or 1,353 of 9,806 students
-GUSD: 23 percent, or 2,760 of 12,022 students
-County: 21.2, or 59,448 of 280,945 students
-State: 28.5 percent, or 1,829,421 of 6,420,737 students
Flores also pointed out that GUSD consistently averages a 94 to 95 percent attendance rate that does not coincide with the reported truancy rates. She said GUSD had less than 50 students of 11,500 who were considered “chronic cases” during the 2012-13 school year.
In those cases, the parents must meet five times a year with the School Attendance Review Board, or SARB, at the district attorney’s office.
Chronic truancy often leads to students not earning their high school diploma, and data from Harris’ report shows that dropouts cost California approximately $46 billion annually in reduced earnings, crime victim services, reduced economic growth and state and local government (criminal justice, welfare and healthcare costs). Additionally, since school funding is based on student attendance rates, school districts lose $1.4 billion per year statewide by failing to get students to school.
“We’ve been really emphasizing this to parents because we know this effects our revenue,” Flores said.
In Morgan Hill, the average daily attendance rate (the amount of money the district receives for every student each day he or she is in school) is approximately $35. In Gilroy, it’s $36.41.
“The empty desks in our public elementary school classrooms come at a great cost to California,” reads the 2013 truancy report. “School districts across the state pay the price in the form of slashed budgets and diminished student achievement.”
In the 2011-12 school year, nearly 40 percent of the 1.8 million truant students, or more than 690,000 statewide, were from primary schools. Furthermore, more than 250,000 elementary school students miss 10 percent of the school year; almost 83,000 have more than three weeks of unexcused absences; and 20,000 elementary school children miss 36 days or more per year, the report states.
Harris, who announced she now plans on releasing the report annually, was concerned by the statistics, stating there is “a direct connection between public education and public safety.”
Betando said the monitoring of truancy and/or absenteeism starts with the classroom teacher, then the school site’s administration and, if the problem persists, a report goes to the district’s Student Attendance Review Board. Betando said many times the blame for an unexcused tardy or absence is not the student’s fault, but rather the parent’s fault. Regardless, it is marked as unexcused.
Truancy rates are generally higher at high school and middle schools, where a student can be marked as truant for arriving late to any of three periods throughout the day, as seen in the CDE statistics. But Harris’ focus in her report was at the elementary school level.
In GUSD, the three highest truancy rates for elementary schools were at:
-Glenview: 23.8
-Luigi Aprea: 21.1
-Rod Kelley: 19.9.
In Morgan Hill, the three highest elementary school truancy rates were at:
-Los Paseos: 18.1
-Barrett: 17.1
-San Martin Gwinn: 11.3.
The county’s elementary school truancy rate was 14.4, according to Harris’ report.
Harris’ special project team is calling for early intervention from school staff and law enforcement to help rectify the truancy trend.
In severe cases, the team recommends prosecution of parents of a chronically truant elementary school student. Other corrective measures call for community- and faith-based organizations to take a proactive role with school attendance campaigns; and including truancy and absence rates in schools’ Academic Performance Index score, the state’s benchmark for student achievement.
State superintendent Tom Torlakson chimed in Monday about the report, stating that “the implications are staggering” and “every missed school day is a missed opportunity.” He called for “parents, law enforcement, health professionals and more” to work together to curb the problem.
Although the CDE has not yet posted is truancy rates for the 2012-13 school year, Harris’ report cites School Innovations & Achievement Data that states 29.6 percent, or 982,352 of, elementary school students were truant in the 2012-13 school year.
“Elementary school is where we build a foundation for academic success and set children on a path to good health and economic security,” the report states. “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.”
Ninety-seven school districts and/or county offices of education in California, as well as 23 law enforcement agencies, three court systems and other youth-based organizations helped to provide statistics for the report.


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