Students in the Kerman Unified School District attend school more often than other local students, boasting a 98 percent average daily attendance rate – the highest in Fresno County.
That’s partly because Kerman Unified, home to about 5,000 students, has made attendance a priority, awarding students who regularly show up to class with pizza parties and prizes, and taking part in the Truancy Intervention Program.
Ten Fresno County districts are a part of TIP, a partnership between the Fresno County Office of Education, the District Attorney’s Office and Fresno County Probation that works to make sure parents and students take attendance seriously.
“If kids don’t come to school every day we cannot help them, so it’s important that attendance is the No. 1 priority,” Fresno County Superintendent Jim Yovino said Wednesday at a news conference at Goldenrod Elementary School to recognize Attendance Awareness Month, a national event.
But other districts aren’t doing so well.
According to a report on truancy released Wednesday by the state Attorney General’s Office, more than 230,000 elementary students in California missed 18 or more days of school last year. The report only tracks student attendance up to the fifth grade.
Per California law, students are considered truant if they have three unexcused absences or are at least 30 minutes tardy three times in a school year.
Fresno County had among the highest elementary school truancy rates in the state, with nearly 27 percent of students labeled as truant during the 2013-14 school year – a 5 percent increase from the prior year.
How many elementary students in California missed more than 18 days of school last year
That resulted in a loss of more than $51 million in state funding for Fresno County schools last year – about $270 per student. That’s because state funding for school districts is based on average daily attendance, so high rates of absenteeism can cost districts millions.
The third annual Attorney General’s report revealed that students who miss school are more likely to struggle academically and eventually drop out.
About 75 percent of elementary students with the most severe attendance problems come from low-income families, while about 20 percent of black students are chronically absent.
More than 80 percent of students who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are unable to read at grade level by third grade, and students whose reading skills aren’t up to speed by that time are four times more likely to drop out of school later, according to the report.
At Fresno Unified, nearly 42,500 students were considered truant during the 2013-14 school year – more than half of the total student body.
The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office announced a new program for Fresno Unified on Wednesday as well. The Attendance Matters Truancy Prevention Program will conduct meetings with parents at elementary schools and focus on the legal consequences of not sending their children to school.
Parents could face costly fines or jail time if their child is labeled as truant.
How much state funding Fresno County schools missed out on this year because of absences
Last year, Fresno Unified hired 20 child welfare and attendance specialists, who are based at the most at-risk elementary schools. The specialists make home visits and stay in constant contact with families to make sure students get to class.
Fresno Unified’s high number of low-income families contributes to its high truancy rate, said Ambra Dorsey, executive director of prevention and intervention, but a community effort and a shift in thinking already has some schools seeing positive changes.
“We do have socioeconomic struggles, and we do face things like homelessness and parents who are working in the fields who leave very early, and older siblings are responsible for getting the younger ones to school. When we hear truancy you think of high school students skipping class, but that’s not the only problem,” Dorsey said. “This is a new approach – we’re working with families and mentoring students so that school is a place that they want to be. We’re increasing connections.”
California is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t track student attendance in its statewide records systems. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed bills that would’ve changed that – and also would’ve mandated districts to annually report truancy data to the state – saying it would be burdensome to local officials. Brown did pass some legislation pertaining to truancy, though, increasing local district attorneys’ and prosecutors’ roles in the attendance problem.
While it’s not mandatory, more than 80 percent of school districts reported that they collect and monitor student absences and tardies over time, according to the Attorney General’s report.