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.

Meanwhile, a major health foundation, the California Endowment, announced a $50 million investment to help boys and young men of color overcome obstacles to school success, starting with absenteeism.

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.

4 Responses

  1. What a JOKE, again!!!

    AG Harris has mentioned all of her reasons for this mandate except the one true reason: The price of each child’s head in class is worth way more to the state than a child who is at home.

    If we don’t realize what is happening here we will soon be forced to birth children who are immediately “enrolled” in school, just for a head count of course. The price of each child attending school has already been monetized. This article is attempting to frighten parents.

    The school district in my city has done nothing for these children but sit back like stumps on a log, watching them fall further through the cracks every year while they of course cash in on their hefty, sit on my butt and do nothing, but look goofy all day salaries.

    Ever heard the phrase “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”? Looks like our highest officials have some listening to do.


  2. Laura

    I’ve personally witnessed the effects of children missing school in the early grades as a teacher. It is a catastrophic blow to kids who are of average to high intelligence, but can never catch up to their peers. It ruins their self esteem and can create an endless cycle of trying to catch-up until they just give up.

    Schools do get funded based on attendance, but give me a break. Most schools in California receive barely enough funds per pupil just to keep running and keep their facilities in working order. No one lines their pockets with extra cash by cutting back on truancy. Instead it may improve the educational opportunities of the kids whose parents do get them to school as well as the kids who don’t always show up.

  3. shoshonej

    The stick will not work any longer. Give the kids and families some carrots (there are enough to go around).

  4. Ellita Pearce

    I have worked in education for many years and know personally that no one in education gets rich off of attendance. And, the main reason I want my student to attend is they miss so much every day. Just this Friday, my first graders were learning how to count down to subtract, reviewing adding with doubles (their test is on Tuesday), we went over the three spellings for the /k/ sound and blended short vowel words the consonant blends. We read a book about tree frogs and learned how to ask questions that were on topic. And, we wrote about how to be a trustworthy friend. The students who were absent missed out and will be trying to read the phonic reader with the /k/ sound without any prior experience, will be grouped with ‘expert students’ to survive the count-down practice worksheet and quick re-teach and will be challenged by identifying questions that are on topic in my quick quiz. All of this while I am introducing the new stuff of the day.


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