It’s as if the grown-up world is waking up to the struggles children face just getting to school.
This week the state’s Attorney General — its highest law enforcement official — issued a call to action to make sure kids are in school and end to chronic absenteeism among elementary school students, particularly kindergarten and first and second graders. AG Kamala Harris issued a report on the harm missing school does to kids’ lives as well as to state public safety.
Oakland Unified School District has strengthened initiatives to encourage good attendance through its Oakland Education Cabinet effort with community members and law enforcement. They created an Attendance Support Committee to get the message out to parents about how important it is for children to attend school – and what harm can happen if they miss too much school. OUSD staff commissioned and disseminated a video to get kids on board in the campaign. And, with the help of the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, which has long been unique in holding a truancy court for parents of truant kids, now publishes “A tool kit to Reduce Early Chronic Absence.” with tips principals and teachers can use to reach out to parents as well as to track attendance trends of individual children.
In Oakland, one in nine elementary school students is chronically absent – meaning they’ve missed 18 or more days of school. Across the state, one in 13 elementary school kids, or 250,000 children are chronically absent.
Everyone is sitting up and noticing that absenteeism is a problem, missing school is hurting kids.
“High truancy rates are a serious problem in California elementary schools. During the 2011-2012 school year, close to 30 percent of all public school students in California were classified as truant,” or had missed three or more days school without an excuse, the Attorney General’s report said. Truancy is particularly common – and harmful – among young elementary school students. Almost half of the truant kids were elementary school students who had missed 18 or more days of school, meaning they were chronically absent and statistically in danger of falling behind in their studies.
“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,” the Attorney General states in her report.
That’s because kids who miss school in first and second grade have a hard time learning to read by third grade. In third grade, instruction switches from learning to read to reading to learn, so if kids who can’t read by then, they have a hard time keeping up in school generally. That accumulates, and by high school, statistically, those students who couldn’t read when they were in third grade tend to drop out.
But all the attention this week is as if grown-ups realized that it’s not kids’ fault.
If you are five or six years old, or even seven or eight, it’s generally not your decision whether or not to go to school. You don’t drive, after all, or read bus schedules. You generally don’t have the clout to tell your older siblings to walk you to school or to ward off bullies if your neighborhood sidewalks aren’t safe for you to walk.
Parents and guardians are the ones, generally, who get you to school — or not. Alameda County Superior Court realizes this. Superior Court Judge Gloria Ryms summons parents whose kids are chronically absent to show up at court. She gives them sentences: walk your kid to school every day for the next four months. If they don’t, they face a hefty fine.
School administrators do, too. Principals and school district officials should have systems in place to track which kids aren’t getting to school. In fact, it’s the law.
“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,” Harris said.
Administrators can use this information to find parents, send letters, call, and visit where kids live.
“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.”
Oakland Unified School District kicked off this school year with a campaign to get kids to school. It commissioned the creation of a video, “I’m an Oakland School Kid” and then publicized it on YouTube and elsewhere to help kids realize the good in getting to school and how they can tell their parents to help get them there. It has asked principals to stress attendance at back-to-school nights.
The California Endowment will invest in programs to improve school attendance and reading programs, enroll children in health care programs so poor health is not an obstacle, and promote leadership programs for teenagers while encouraging discipline programs that keep them in school and replace out-of-school suspensions.