Chronic absenteeism, stakeholder engagement practices shared at PACE conference

Two timely and important issues facing districts and school boards, chronic absenteeism and stakeholder engagement, shared the spotlight at this year’s Policy Analysis for California Education annual conference. The Feb. 1 event in downtown Sacramento, with a theme of “Putting Evidence into Action to Advance Equity in California,” served as a venue for researchers and practitioners to share best practices in key areas identified in PACE’s “Getting Down to Facts II” report.

A fresh focus on chronic absenteeism

About 10 percent of districts and 12 percent of schools fall in the red performance category in the new chronic absenteeism indicator on the 2018 California School Dashboard. The issue’s added accountability factor makes it even more of a priority for school board members, district officials and school site leaders.

More than one in 10 students statewide were chronically absent from school in 2017-18, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of the school year, as recently highlighted by EdSource. The organization also published a searchable database using California Department of Education data.

At the PACE event, Michael A. Gottfried, associate professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara, highlighted the urgency of the issue across grade levels, noting that, “This is problematic the second kids walk into school.”

And although districts and schools are charged with accountability and rely on average daily attendance numbers for funding, there are many factors that are beyond their control. Schools cannot solve the issue alone, Gottfried said, emphasizing the need for community buy-in, partnerships, and parental education and involvement.

Such an example was provided by Sacramento City Unified School District students Cecilia Colchico and Kiarah Young. The pair is involved in the marketing and promotions team for the district’s “Be Here, Every Day Counts” campaign, which aims to educate families about chronic absences and the importance of good school attendance. The group holds rallies at school and community events such as back-to-school nights, in addition to connecting with youths through social media.

In targeting student subgroups that may have larger barriers to attending school, Kathy Lee of the 53,000-student Corona-Norco Unified School District said tactics such as group home visitations can be considered to better engage foster youth and excite them about attending school.

Stepping up stakeholder engagement

When it comes to connecting with parents and community members, breakout session panelists said there can sometimes be a chasm between the spirit and the letter of the law. Rather, some districts may only see the activity as needed to check the box when it’s time for Local Control Accountability Plan feedback. Further, a PACE study on the Local Control Funding Formula indicates many districts, including those making strides toward engagement, struggle to connect with parents of students in targeted subgroups (such as low-income, English learners and foster youth).

Incorporating continuous LCAP feedback into the district’s overall “Palmdale Promise” project, Danny Kanga, Palmdale School District Director of LCAP, outlined some ways in which officials pursue more authentic stakeholder engagement. In addition to using and listening to parent and student LCAP surveys, the district recently added a full-time parent liaison at each school site, as well as using home visits to reach out to English learner households. Palmdale School District has an 87 percent unduplicated pupil count, Kanga said, making outreach efforts even more critical.

He said successes so far and a continued effort to be more inclusive of perspectives stems from the guidance of Superintendent Raul Maldonado and the governing board that made its values and goals clear when hiring him in 2014.

County offices of education can also provide districts with resources and guidance toward best practices for stakeholder and community engagement, as is planned through the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence-led Community Engagement Initiative.

One of the lead agencies in the effort is the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Office, represented at the PACE event by Assistant Superintendent of Education Support Services Beth Higbee.  “’Difficult conversations’ is named in the state legislation,” she said in describing how seriously district and school leaders need to take the stakeholder engagement process.

Ensuring parents and other community members are comfortable with the school system and feel respected by various levels of staff goes a long way toward participation, said California State PTA President-elect Celia Jaffe. “They need to feel like they have a say in the day to day, everyday,” and not just when hot-button issues arise, said the former Huntington Beach City Unified trustee and CSBA delegate.

CSBA resources for further reading