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An LAUSD teacher’s struggle with chronically absent students

Jinge Li | November 28, 2023

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Nelly Cristales

Second-grade teacher Nelly Cristales says her LAUSD school has developed a unique way to combat chronic absenteeism — competition.

At 32nd Street School near University Park in East Los Angeles, a big, bright trophy goes to the class with the least absences and latenesses — and Cristales’ students are eager to win.

“My kids are motivated, we want that trophy, and we want to keep it,” said Christales, explaining the winning class gets to display the trophy in their classroom for a month. “They tell each other ‘Don’t be late, don’t be late.’ “

For Cristales, the nationwide problem of chronic absenteeism has hit home, with roughly three of her 22 students not attending class regularly , and the problem seeming to be getting worse. Last school year Cristales’ class won the trophy twice – but this year they have not won it at all. 

LA Unified schools saw a severe decline in students’ attendance post-COVID-19, with 40% of students chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year — a 19.8% increase compared to before the pandemic, an LAUSD spokesperson said.

“Where do I start,” said Cristales when asked what challenges chronic absenteeism creates for her.

“Each day is vital to the content being delivered to the students,” she said. “Each day missed is a loss. As an educator [we do] not have the luxury to waste any time.” 

Cristales compared learning to climbing a mountain, with each day in the classroom a step towards reaching the top. Missing just a day of school can impact a student’s learning, she said.

“You feel the obligation to help that student to catch up,” she said, “ [even] when you have other students to help…it is frustrating to me as a teacher because I know what the loss of the day means for those students.” 

Cristales’ school also has a partnership with the University of Southern California, which provides tutors and mentors to students twice a week for 30 minutes.

“But if the student is not present, they are missing out on the support that they so much need,” she noted. 

LA Unified identify students as chronically absent if have they missed at least 10% of school days or about three and a half weeks of classes. 

“We’ve seen a lot of difference [in my classroom] after COVID,” said Cristales. “Many of them are not coming, and when you ask them why, many will tell you they woke up late, the traffic was bad…It’s like their priorities have changed, and that’s what I’ve observed.”

Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of USC Rossier School of Education, said COVID has changed many students’ and parents’ behaviors toward school. 

“Certainly, COVID has made people more sensitive to illness and more likely to keep kids home if they’re not feeling well,” Polikoff said. “There’s also some evidence to suggest that kids are just less engaged in school than they were before.” 

Online classes also created an unintended consequence, creating the belief among families that it’s not a big deal if kids miss school, Polikoff added.

A study conducted by Polikoff and his colleagues found there are clear demographic trends in the increases in absenteeism among Black and Hispanic students. These declines have been especially large for historically underserved student groups, with those students not recovering to pre-pandemic levels.

“What we know about the pandemic and its impact on students is that it just widened every gap,” Polikoff said. “The way that our education systems and our society are set up is that all these disadvantages are sort of stacked on top of one another.”

Polikoff said some factors that can lead Black and Hispanic students to have a higher absence rate are lower vaccination rates among the Black and Hispanic communities, which can lead to sickness or aversion to getting sick. 

“There are a million reasons, but they all point in the same direction: Black and Hispanic students are subject to many different forms of cumulative disadvantage both within school and outside of school,” Polikoff added. 

To combat higher absent rates, LAUSD has established the iAttend program aimed to improve student attendance and help prepare students to be “ready for the world” through accumulated data, community outreach, and improvement on staff education. 

Jinge Li is a documentary filmmaker/multimedia journalist based in Arcadia, CA and an undergraduate student at University of Southern California. He hopes to promote the presence of minority voices, using film as a medium for change.

This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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