On Wednesday, Sept. 16, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris issued her third annual statewide report on elementary school truancy and chronic absence. The report, In School + On Track 2015, is available online at www.oag.ca.gov/truancy/2015.
The report finds that, compared to last year, California still faces a crisis in school attendance. Nearly 230,000 California elementary school students are chronically absent — missing more than 10 percent of the school year — and more than one in five are truant, having three or more unexcused absences. Annually, dropouts cost California taxpayers an estimated $46.4 billion in incarceration, lost productivity and lost taxes, according to the report.
The report also outlines significant progress made in the past year in increasing awareness of the importance of attendance within school districts, tracking attendance year over year and rethinking discipline policies that remove students from the classroom.
“Elementary school truancy has sweeping implications for our state’s economy and public safety,” said Harris in the press release announcing the latest study. “When our youngest students are missing more than 10 percent of the school year, we know that they often fall behind and never catch up.”
The report quickly states the problem: “When students are chronically absent from elementary school, they fall behind academically, they are less likely to graduate from high school, and they are more likely to be unemployed, on public assistance, or victims or perpetrators of crime.” And then labels it the “School-to-prison pipeline.”
The report offers updated data on the truancy crisis, which is particularly stark in the earliest grades. According to the report, nearly 15 percent of kindergarteners are chronically absent (missing more than 10 percent of the school year) and the kindergarten truancy rate for the past year neared 30 percent. Attendance modestly improves as students progress through school. For example, 9 percent of first graders are chronically absent and it drops to 6 percent of third graders.
The consequence of missing this much schooling is that 80 percent of students who missed more than 10 percent of the school year in kindergarten and first grade were unable to read on grade-level when they reached third grade. When that happens, they are four times more likely to drop out of school.
Racial disparities are alarming in these early grades. Chronic absence rates for Native American and African American students were almost 30 percent in kindergarten.
Also, racial and income disparities persist beyond kindergarten and throughout elementary school. Close to 20 percent of African American and Native American students are chronically absent, and more than three-quarters of the students who are chronically absent are low-income.
Since last year’s report was issued, however, school districts have made significant strides. For example, more than 95 percent of districts reported they have made changes to policies and programs to improve attendance, or plan to do so for the 2015-16 school year.
Since the first report two years ago, schools are developing more programs to address and reduce absenteeism and truancy. For example, many schools have shifted their actions from focusing on punishment to a focus on prevention, including greater efforts to engage parents.
Part of these programs is an effort to correct common misconceptions about early school absences. The four most common misconceptions are:
• Early grade attendance isn’t as important as high school.
• Students will catch up before they get to high school.
• Only absences on consecutive days have a negative impact.
• Absences are OK as long as the parent signs off.
Another improvement is that a number of districts have changed policies so that students would miss less time in school for suspensions. Importantly, many districts are using local control and accountability plans to set clear goals to reduce truancy and chronic absenteeism.
As district attorney of San Francisco, Harris started a citywide elementary school truancy initiative in 2006. In October 2009, she published a report indicating: “In the last year alone, truancy among elementary school students declined on average by 20 percent.”