Close the achievement gap by reducing the attendance gap

by Hedy Chang

September is attendance awareness month. To kick it off, CSBA invited Attendance Works Director Hedy Chang to address chronic absence and how school boards, superintendents and other education stakeholders can work together to help solve it.

More students in California, just over 80 percent, are now graduating from high school. Sustaining and expanding this success, however, requires deepening our efforts to address a pernicious challenge that continues to undermine success for our most vulnerable students: the attendance gap.

According to GradNation, across the nation and in California, significant disparities in graduation rates remain, especially for low-income students and students of color. Yet, these are the very same student populations shown to be more likely to miss significant amounts of school. In School + On Track 2014, a report from California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, reveals that for low-income students and students of color in California, this problematic attendance pattern begins early, emerging as a challenge even in kindergarten.

Chronic absence, or missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason, is a proven early warning sign of academic trouble and eventual dropout, starting in the early grades.

Chronic absence, or missing 10 percent or more of school for any reason, is a proven early warning sign of academic trouble and eventual dropout, starting in the early grades. Chronic absence isn’t just a matter of truancy or skipping school. In fact, many absences, especially among our youngest students, are excused and tied directly to health factors: asthma, dental problems, poor vision, learning disabilities and mental health issues related to trauma and community violence. Unfortunately, whether absences are excused, unexcused or due to suspensions, the resulting loss of instructional time can be substantial and the academic consequences decidedly negative.

The Local Control Funding Formula requires districts to calculate chronic absence as a measure of pupil engagement. Too often, chronic absence is overlooked and doesn’t trigger a response because schools only monitor truancy (students missing school without permission) or average daily attendance (how many students show up each day). Even schools with 95 percent ADA can have as many as 25 percent of students who are chronically absent or missing so much school they are academically at risk.

The good news is that chronic absence is a solvable problem, especially when schools and communities use their data to monitor when and where chronic absence occurs. They can work together to identify and address barriers to getting to school while helping families track absences and avoid missing school whenever possible.

A wealth of free resources are available on the Attendance Works website to support adoption of best practices and avoid reinventing the wheel. Superintendents can take the Call to Action pledge to automatically receive the most current tools from Attendance Works. Administrators can get tips from Leading Attendance in California: A Toolkit for Principals to Reduce Chronic Absence. Local and county school boards can update their guidance using the CSBA sample policy, Chronic Absence and Truancy. Districts can get help calculating chronic absence by leveraging free data tools tailored for California school districts. Interested stakeholders of all types can use the Count Us In Toolkit to obtain tools for building a strong local culture of attendance.

Join a growing movement of educators and activists committed to ensuring students, especially the most vulnerable, are in school so they have a chance to learn and succeed.

Hedys-pic-5-101  Hedy Chang directs Attendance Works, a national and state level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence.