Published : Monday, December 5, 2016 | 5:05 PM
Missing too much school during preschool, kindergarten, and first grade has long-term and costly impacts that lead to widening achievement gaps in later years, according to a study by Attendance Works, a national initiative that promotes awareness about the importance of school attendance.
“Skipping just two days of school each month puts children at risk academically,” says Paul-Michael Dalton, who leads Pasadena Unified’s attendance initiatives and serves as chair of the district’s School Attendance Review Board (SARB). “Whether excused or unexcused, excessive school absences in early elementary school grades are a predictor of lower reading levels by third grade, struggles in middle school, behavior issues, a higher likelihood of dropping out of school, and lower levels of college attendance.”
Pasadena Unified’s (PUSD) attendance rate was 96% in 2015-2016. The district aims to raise attendance by one percent this year. Of special concern are chronic absences among students in the early grades: 11 percent of PUSD kindergarteners missed the equivalent of 10 percent or more school days in 2015-2016.
Especially in the younger grades, parents need to be wary of keeping kids home for “just a couple of days” each month. “You have to look at absences for the whole year,” says Dalton. “Those couple of days each month add up to 18 absences – 18 lost days of classroom learning.”
The percentage of all chronically absent students dropped from 12 percent to 11.3 percent in 2015-2016.
“Students are chronically absent for various reasons: a health issue that hasn’t been addressed, transportation, peer pressure, or bullying,” says Dalton. “Instead of taking a punitive approach, we work with students and families to understand what is causing school absences and then work together to break down the barriers to academic success and attending school every day. We want to find out from students and families what the issues are so that we can help them.”
Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent (or up to 18 days) of a single school year and incorporates all absences: excused, unexcused, and suspensions.
Dalton and his colleagues in the Office of Child Welfare, Attendance and Safety are focusing on the academic consequences of lost instructional time and on preventing excessive absences so that students stay on track. He reviews attendance data constantly to identify students who are chronically absent, or close to it, and reaches out to them, their parents/guardians, and their school.
Dalton also chairs the district’s SARB, a multi-agency panel composed of representatives from various youth-serving agencies that helps truant students and their parents or guardians solve school attendance and behavior problems. The district’s SARB includes representatives from the District Attorney’s office, the Department of Child and Family Services, and community organizations such as Day One, Flintridge Center, and Lake Avenue Church. Students are referred to SARB hearing when they are habitually truant, irregular in school attendance, or habitually insubordinate during school. Once in the SARB process, students and families get intensive guidance and interventions, with referrals to youth-serving agencies. The interventions are designed to ensure the student’s success.
Missing school has a costly impact on funding for schools. Like other California school districts, PUSD is funded according to average daily attendance. When students are absent, schools lose funding.
“That’s lost funding to hire teachers, more school nurses and to create academic programs,” says Dalton. “Missing school impacts the whole school: it’s costly for everyone.”
Seeing a student’s attendance rise and helping them rekindle their passion for school are the favorite parts of Dalton’s job.
“Finding and addressing the barriers that hold kids back from being excited about school and their future is what keeps me going,” says Dalton. “Working with students and their families and seeing them walk out of this office in a better state than when they walked in because we connected them with mental health services, addressed a bullying issue, or helped a chronically absent student find their passion for school – that’s what motivates me.”
To keep students on the right track, Dalton advises parents to communicate with school staff about issues that affect their children’s attendance. “Let us know so that we can help,” he says.