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1 in 4 kindergartners is chronically absent — part of a multimillion-dollar problem for LAUSD

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | September 4, 2018

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(Courtesy: Excelencia Charter Academy)

Los Angeles Unified has a multimillion-dollar problem: kids aren’t coming to school. And it’s particularly bad among their youngest students.

New district data show that 1 in 4 kindergartners misses 15 or more days of school each year.

“I couldn’t believe that when I heard that,” Diane Pappas, the superintendent’s senior adviser, told board members at the August meeting as she presented the district’s four-point plan to decrease chronic absences.

Schools get paid by the state for every day a child is in school. In 2016-17, LA Unified lost about $630 million in revenues as over 80,000 students — or 14.3 percent of all students — were chronically absent, which is defined as missing 15 or more days, according to a LA Unified Advisory Task Force’s report.

This year’s message to parents and school staff is: Keep the number of days any student is absent to seven or less. And parents will start seeing that message at their schools this Friday, which the district is designating “Attendance Matters Day.”

When he was introduced as the new superintendent in May, Austin Beutner said if LA Unified can turn 8,000 to 10,000 kids into better attenders, “they’ll learn, and absenteeism matters to the whole classroom because the revenues come back — probably $10 million of revenue for the district as a whole next year.”

But even more important than the loss of revenue is the learning loss. Fewer absences also mean higher student achievement.

Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by the third grade, according to the task force’s report last year. Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school. And irregular attendance can be a better predictor of whether students will drop out before graduation than test scores.

Most of the high frequency absences are in low-income schools and in kindergarten and high school grades, the task force found. African-American students have the highest percentage of absences. And among all ethnicities except Asian, the rates of absences are higher among less affluent families.

Since kindergartners don’t become truants on their own, this year the district is making sure parents at LA Unified schools are educated about the importance of good attendance at ongoing orientation meetings held at each principal’s discretion.

At the orientations, “Parents are told that research shows there is a strong correlation between attendance and student achievement. For kindergarten, we are focused on the learning, and the financial implications are secondary,” Pappas said by email.

Here are the district’s plans to attack absences this year:

  • Direct mail/postcard campaign: The district will mail 190,000 postcards during the school year to households that have students who have been or are on track to become chronically absent. Last year in a pilot program, it mailed 24,000 postcards. This year’s mail campaign is expected to generate up to 270,000 days of additional attendance and $17 million in additional revenue.
  • Phone calls: Parents of students who have been missing school will be receiving phone calls throughout the year by school staff during school hours to share clear, consistent messaging about the importance of attendance.
  • Attendance improvement incentives: The incentive program is a way of encouraging students to attend school by rewarding them. Awards will vary and will be funded by donations from community partners.
  • Counseling: The district will provide one-on-one counseling to students and families most at risk of becoming chronically absent. Counselors and mentors work with the students and families to identify and remove the barriers preventing them from attending school.
  • ‘Student Attendance Matters’ events: The Division of Student Health and Human Services (SHHS) will be conducting a ‘Dawn Patrol’ program that will provide targeted support to schools with higher chronic absence rates. Beginning with the first day of school, SHHS staff made phone calls and conducted home visits to families of students who were chronically absent last year or who were absent on the first days of school. Also, a new “Attendance Matters Day” will replace the formerly-dubbed “Student Recovery Day” and will be held Friday, Sept. 7. The purpose of the “Attendance Matters Day” is to make a concerted effort to support students who are chronically absent or at risk of dropping out.

Read more on student absences:

LA parent voice: My daughter has perfect attendance, but my goal is to help all parents take responsibility for making sure their kids are in school

LAUSD loses ground in its fight against chronic absenteeism, but foster youth attendance is up

Easy money for LA schools: Get every kid to class one more day a year and generate $30 million

King’s first priority for a new LA Unified task force is chronic absenteeism. We break it down for you

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