Mt. Diablo USD working to reduce chronic absenteeism amongst foster youth

An East Bay school district’s efforts to improve attendance and academic outcomes for one of its most vulnerable student groups — foster youth — was discussed during the recent California Department of Education webinar, “Reducing Chronic Absenteeism for Foster Youth: MTSS Case Study.”

As local educational agencies across the state struggle with chronic absenteeism post-pandemic, David Haupert, administrator for district and school continuous improvement at Contra Costa County Office of Education, explained how the implementation of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports has helped decrease chronic absenteeism this year among students in foster care by 11 percent in Mt. Diablo Unified School District.

Mt. Diablo USD has been receiving differentiated assistance from CDE for declining outcomes for foster youth, students experiencing homelessness and African American students, according to Haupert. Like many districts, Mt. Diablo has struggled to meet the needs of students in the margins. From 2017 to 2019, Haupert noted worsening graduation rates, chronic absenteeism and suspension rates for those student groups.

To try to get to the root of the issues causing lower performance in local foster youth, Haupert looked at available data such as testing results and attendance patterns. “This left me with a singular story of our foster youth that was entirely deficit based. I didn’t know how our foster youth were brilliant, I didn’t know what their experience in our schools were, I didn’t know who these students were, and I didn’t know their stories,” he said. “It is often from this place of having a single story that we in education work to solve problems and when we work from a single story to solve problems, we will actually just perpetuate the same outcomes. If we’re looking to make meaningful shifts in the outcomes for our students, we must avoid the dangers of a single story.”

To see the bigger picture, the district set out to collect street-level data to understand students’ perspectives and circumstances and crafted a vision for foster youth who thrive, which includes elements like creating an equity-focused support system situated between educational and student services teams so foster youth have a liberatory schooling experience; highlighting stories of foster youth to eliminate a single story narrative and elevate the successes of and challenges for foster youth; and ultimately impacting the system so foster youth have consistent support, focus and attention while in school.

To get to know students, Mt. Diablo replicated an empathy interview process it already had in place for another program. Over a six-week period in the fall, the district’s counselor interviewed 90 percent of foster students (at the time, they believed there were 50-55 total students). Students were asked about their preferred love language, how they learn best, what communication styles they respond to, how they are doing well and how they are struggling, strengths in the home and school settings and overall needs.

Through this process, officials found their data was inaccurate and there were far more foster youth in the system. In the same period, Haupert took part in community resource mapping to draft an integrated MTSS plan including the foster youth bill of rights, information on Tier 1, 2 and 3 supports, an organizational chart with relevant contacts and local resources.

Counselors at all school sites have been trained on MTSS and met with their students. Internal accountability measures have since been put into place with data being verified weekly. Interviews are still done as students are identified unless they decline.


The district and COE have partnered with the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence to lean into improving equity efforts. They are using cycles of inquiry to drive their work and, in looking at chronic absenteeism, used tools like process mapping and fishbone diagrams — a process that helps teams visualize a problem’s root causes — to deepen their understanding of existing issues and find potential solutions.

Some schools tried expanding their drop-off windows or pushed role call to later in the day, for instance. Haupert recommended that LEAs always start small and scale out when adopting changes. For foster youth, efforts have resulted in decreased suspension rates and increases in rates of attendance and anticipated graduation.

Next steps and extensions include building a model for engaging families and foster care teams in MTSS, designing foster youth summits, using various cycles of inquiry to determine which practices are best, identifying how to embed MTSS within counselor meetings, and continuously developing accountability measures and making outcomes public.