Report: Elementary school truancy in Valley at 'crisis' levels

The Fresno BeeSeptember 30, 2013 


California Attorney General Kamala Harris

RICHARD VOGEL — Associated Press file, 2012

More than one out of every five Fresno County elementary school students was truant last year, costing county districts millions of dollars and even more money through increased poverty and incarceration, according to a report released Monday by the state attorney general's office.

County numbers mirror a statewide trend that Attorney General Kamala Harris is calling "crisis level" in the report that estimates about 1 million elementary students had unexcused absences last year. Overall, 29.6% of California youngsters were truant in 2011-12.

The report is a warning to many schools, including the approximately 2,000 elementary schools that reported truancy rates between 20% and 40%. Some schools said more than 92% of students had three or more unexcused absences. Calaveras and San Luis Obispo counties reported the highest truancy rates, with both topping 30% last year.

"The findings are stark," the report says. "We are failing our children."

Students are tardy for a number of reasons, the report shows, including problems at home, bullying and chronic health issues.

The study looked at 550 elementary schools and based its data on surveys, interviews with district and county officials and discussions with parents, nonprofits and district attorneys.

To be considered truant, a student must be at least 30 minutes late to school without a valid excuse on three or more occasions during a school year. State numbers show that out of the 1 million truant California students last year, about 83,000 were considered "chronically truant," meaning they missed 10% of school that year.

About 28,551 Fresno County students were truant last year, or 21.4% of all students.

Fresno County Superintendent Jim Yovino said it's critical students make it to class on time, but said systemic problems in the home and prevalent health issues in the Central Valley like asthma are keeping some kids out of school.

It's going to take partnerships between districts, parents and nonprofits to make real change, he said.

"This is a community issue, this isn't just a single home or single-parent issue, this is about getting everyone involved and being able to work with neighbors in their community," he said.

The long-term impact of missing school is real for many students, the study shows. The more times a student is absent or tardy, it says, the more likely it is for that student to drop out later in life.

MaryJane Skjellerup, senior director of Central Valley programs at the nonprofit Youth Leadership Institute, said society has a "habit" of blaming teen dropouts. But truancy during early grades -- when kids learn to read and write -- end up being a primary cause of dropping out or other effects down the line, she said.

"We're missing a critical opportunity during the preschool and elementary years to find out what's really going on with children who are struggling," she said.

California law requires districts to track attendance, alert parents when their kids miss class and try to help students attend more frequently.

In Sanger Unified School District, the district is willing to take parents of habitually truant kids to court to help stem the problem.

Last year, Sanger Unified brought 41 parents to court, said Dennis Wiechmann, district supervisor of child welfare and attendance. School administrators first meet with the parents, he said, and if the student still misses school, the district could take the parents to court.

A citation could carry a $340 fine, he said.

"It has a snowball effect on your academics if you go through school (being truant)," he said. "If students have those holes in instruction, it absolutely affects them."

Fewer students in school also means less dollars for local districts, whose budgets are based in part on how many full-time students are in the classroom each day. Absenteeism in all grades cost Fresno County about $56.3 million last year.

Overall, the study found districts across the state lose approximately $1.4 billion in state funds per year based on school attendance rates.

Taking long-term effects into account, like incarceration and poverty, dropouts cost California more than $46 billion annually, the report shows.

Yovino said his office is taking steps to curb tardiness, including asking school boards to track it more closely and to consider resolutions that promote attendance. He said he's also partnered with local TV stations to publicize the importance of getting to class.

Ambra Dorsey, executive director of prevention and intervention at Fresno Unified School District, said schools track student attendance on a digital dashboard and focus on prevention, like connecting families with counselors or other resources.

Trustee Janet Ryan said schools are also expected to call or send notices parents when their kids are absent. She said schools try to make themselves as "welcoming as possible," but said "if there are no real consequences to children or parents for truancy, we are fighting an uphill battle alone."

It's up to districts to do more than just trouble-shooting, said Javier Guzman, executive director of the Chicano Youth Center in Fresno and a stalwart for tackling school dropout problems.

Guzman said schools, parents, nonprofits and the courts need to band together to create a comprehensive "education safety net," or a way to track kids if they're frequently absent from school.

He said current absentee reporting systems are weak, meaning some students disappear from the system.

"Right now there is no safety net," he said, "and nobody is interested in creating a safety net."

County Elementary School Truancy Rate (2011-12)

Fresno 21.4%

Kern 20.6%

Kings 21.5

Madera 22%

Tulare 16.4%

California 29.6%

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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