Three years ago, Edison High School was engulfed in controversy when it was revealed that a football player had earned an "A" in math even though he had missed class 66 times during the semester -- three out of every four days.
Those 66 absences, it turns out, were not unusual at all.
Last year, 521 high school students across Fresno Unified accumulated between 50 and 100 absences in a single semester, records show. The vast majority of these absences were unexcused.
At the same time, 5,765 high school students district-wide qualified as "habitual truants" during the first semester of last year, meaning they had already accumulated at least nine unexcused absences.
In other words, fully 35% of high school students in Fresno Unified rank as habitual truants after only one semester, according to data provided and confirmed by Fresno Unified.
At Fresno High School, for example, 1,500 students -- two-thirds of the student body -- chalked up so many unexcused absences during the 2010-11 school year that they should have been deemed habitual truants, records show.
But because the school district failed to track so many of these students and notify their parents about their truant status, fewer than 25% of them ended up being referred to the School Attendance Review Board for intervention, records show.
The SARB process requires that a truant and his or her parent meet with representatives from the school to address the attendance problem. If the truancies continue, students and parents then must meet with representatives from the superintendent's office, law enforcement and county probation, health and welfare to come up with a plan to avert dropping out.
State education officials say Fresno Unified is not doing enough to track habitual truants and give them the help they need. The Fresno County Office of Education, for its part, has let the school district off the hook by not demanding the annual truancy reports that state law requires, they say. These reports measure how many truants are referred to SARB for remediation.
State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson, for one, views such tracking and reporting as a vital early warning system of future dropouts. Chronic absenteeism, education experts agree, is a strong predictor of a future dropout.
"Fresno is one of the counties that's not in line with the education code in regards to truancy," said David Kopperud, the state Department of Education chairman for SARB. "San Diego County, for one, does an excellent job of tracking chronic absences and identifying high-risk youth, analyzing the data by grade level and coming up with solutions. Fresno is behind the curve.
"Your county superintendent is the truant watchdog for that area," he said. "If he's not telling his school districts, 'Hey, I need these SARB reports,' then you're running blind and kids are falling through the cracks."
Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Larry Powell confirmed that he does not press local school districts to file the required annual SARB reports. But a number of school districts such as Clovis Unified and Sanger Unified continue to track truants who are sent to SARB and share the data with the public.
Fresno Unified, on the other hand, refused to provide annual SARB reports for this story, even though the information is public. In fact, Fresno Unified failed to publicly release the SARB reports even after Powell made a personal request to Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson for the data. Hanson also would not allow his assistant in charge of SARB, Benita Washington, to speak to a reporter.
Powell concedes that the truancy tracking and intervention system is broken. "Fewer people are employed to run down kids that are absent," he said. "Are we doing what we need to do? No. Then you add in dysfunctional families and a dysfunctional funding system, and it makes it much more difficult to address these issues."
Powell said he will now make sure that local school districts file annual SARB reports. "We need to start tracking these students," he said.
In the early 2000s, the Fresno Police Department, with the help of an outside grant, hired two full-time "juvenile accountability" officers to pick up truants daily, said Chief Jerry Dyer. But when the grant ended, so did the program. "We turned over truancy efforts to Fresno Unified," Dyer said.
In 2008, Fresno Unified dropped out of the county's Truancy Intervention Program, presumably to cut the $120,000 annual costs. It is unclear what special programs, if any, the school district is now using to address the truancy and dropout problem.
Fresno Unified points to a dramatic improvement in its overall truancy rate over the past five years, dropping from 50% in 2005 to 35% today.
But state education officials say the district's official rate fails to capture the true extent of the truancy problem.
Take Fresno High School, for example. Even though more than 66% of the student body qualified as habitual truants last year, when it came time for the school district to report the official truancy rate at Fresno High, it reported the rate at 31%.
"The truancy rates from districts are inaccurate numbers," Kopperud said. "They mask what's really going on at grade level with chronic absences."