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Saturday school and 1,000 Rams tickets — how LAUSD is trying to turn around a stubborn attendance problem

Laura Greanias | October 17, 2018

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Rams teammates visit Sutter Middle School this week to celebrate Know Your Classmates Day. (Photo: LAUSD Twitter)

*Updated Oct. 17

LA Unified is continuing to lose about $630 million a year because students aren’t coming to school. So this year, district officials are rethinking strategies and trying new ones, including Saturday school to make up lost days and handing out 1,000 tickets to Los Angeles Rams football games for students with excellent attendance.

In California, districts are paid for every day students attend school. When they’re not in class, that’s a big loss of income for schools, as well as lost learning for students. LA Unified needs help both financially and academically: It’s projected to run out of money in two and a half years, and fewer than 1 in 3 students meets state standards in math.

So on Tuesday, the school board spent an afternoon listening to data as well as to principals who have had some success at reducing student absences.

First, they had to get the hard facts:

• Last year, 14.7 percent of students, or 70,000 of the district’s half a million students, were chronically absent, meaning they missed 15 or more days of school.

• That totals more than 1 million days of lost instruction last year — and 1 million days of lost funding.

• For every day of school that is missed, it takes a student three days to catch up.

• Chronic absences have increased in each of the past three years.

• The chronic absence rate grew fastest among black students and those receiving special education services. At one middle school, 1 in 3 black students was chronically absent in each of the last three years.

• The percentage of students with excellent attendance — seven or fewer days missed in a school year — continues to decline, dropping to 66.9 percent last year.

• The percentage of students with excellence attendance fell the most among those who live in poverty.

Also troubling is the fact that the percentage of students who are chronically absent has been climbing even as the district’s enrollment has steadily shrunk. This school year’s enrollment of 486,000 is 14,500 below last year’s. A higher percentage of a smaller pool of students has been absent each of the last three years. And the district has been far off its attendance targets for those years.

There was some progress in the first full month of this school year, however. In September, excellent attendance increased 2.2 percent and chronic absences declined 1.5 percent, compared to September 2017.

“The good news so far is we are doing better than last year,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said.

One big success that was piloted last spring in Local District South was the addition of Saturday school so kids could make up class. In May, 441 students made up missed classes, said David Baca, director of district redesign, and the program is expanding this year.

Finding out that the state Department of Education would accept Saturday school attendance and pay LA Unified for those days “was a game-changer,” said board Vice President Nick Melvoin, who led Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.

Broader use of incentives is also coming this year, including tickets to Rams, Dodgers and Sparks games for staff as well as students with excellent attendance. Already this year, the Rams have donated 1,000 tickets — all the more coveted now that the team is 6-0.  

District leaders are also making home visits to boost attendance: 900 visits so far this year have brought 140 students back to school. And the district has convened parent leaders, who are volunteering to help come up with new ways to boost attendance.

One school that is working to increase attendance also posted higher test scores this month. At 107th Street Elementary School in Watts, part of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, student attendance increased 7 percentage points, as did the percentage of students meeting state standards in English language arts. Math scores went up 6 points. Attendance among the school’s staff also increased last year, up 15 percentage points.

Some best practices at 107th Street include recognition for excellent attendance such as “brag tags,” raffles and giveaways, and weekly schoolwide announcements recognizing those with the best attendance. Students who are chronically absent receive home visits and incentives, and meet individually with school leaders and in groups with other students who are chronically absent or tardy.

The school also holds meetings on attendance for parents of students in transitional kindergarten through first grade, a strategy that LA Unified is now adopting districtwide. With 1 in 4 kindergartners chronically absent in LA Unified, the district has begun holding ongoing orientation meetings for kindergarten parents on the importance of attendance.

At one school in Huntington Park that has been piloting programs to increase attendance, enrollment is going up along with attendance. Targeted individual attention to students is persuading them to stay at the school rather than move to the suburbs.

Johnathan Chaikittirattana, one of three principals at the school, Linda Esperanza Marquez High School, said he and his staff model perfect attendance for their students, Speak Up reported. Chronic student absences have dropped from 14.6 percent in 2015 to 3.4 percent last year, while excellent attendance rose from 72.5 percent to 91.2 percent.

One middle school that serves a predominantly black population is using incentives, student recognition, parent reminders and increased mentoring to improve attendance. In each of the last three years at Charles R. Drew Middle School, 1 in 3 black students was chronically absent. But so far this year, the school is is on track to raise that ratio to 1 in 14 students.

Other district strategies to increase attendance this year include 190,000 postcards mailed to households that have students who have been or are on track to become chronically absent, which is expected to bring in $17 million in additional revenue; personal phone calls to parents; one-on-one counseling to students and families most at risk of becoming chronically absent, and “Student Attendance Matters” events, including a “Dawn Patrol” program that will provide targeted support to schools with higher chronic absence rates.

One organization that was credited by LA Unified officials Tuesday for its work with the district on this issue is San Francisco-based Attendance Works, which has been advising key officials in the district for over a decade.

Hedy Chang, its founder and executive director, said in an interview Wednesday that the district is “beginning to get some preliminary results” by going “out through its local districts and working to equip principals so they can do some very key activities.”

“LAUSD is a model of how you can do this work. They target an attendance improvement counselor and they work with the highest needs schools, and they use their data to develop a comprehensive approach to improving attendance. They’re using prevention and early intervention.

“One of the problems that face many districts is they think a single counselor can improve attendance at a single school, but they can’t do it all by themselves. It requires an entire school to support the effort,” Chang said. “To get change in the chronic absences level, you have to have a team organized at the school site that can have a school-wide approach, monitor data and make sure kids are getting the supports they need.”

At LA Unified, “What they’ve historically been able to do is help a smaller number of schools reach kids early before their absences pile up. (Now) they’re trying to expand that to many more schools in the district,” but “LA Unified is like a state department, they’re huge.”

* This article has been updated with an interview with Attendance Works founder Hedy Chang.

• 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

With Nearly 8 Million Students Chronically Absent From School Each Year, 36 States Set Out to Tackle the Problem in New Federal Education Plans. Will It Make a Difference?

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