Absenteeism Unveiled: Investigating M-A’s Issue with Missing Students

3 mins read

Chronic absenteeism rates have increased nationwide and at M-A since the pandemic. In the 2020-2021 school year, nearly a third of California students were considered chronically absent, three times the pre-pandemic rate.

California’s Education Code defines “chronically absent” as missing at least 10% of the instructional days in the school year, regardless of excused or unexcused absences. 

Aspirations Advocacy Program Director Jenna Carson explained, “People who are working with students who are chronically absent have to serve like a detective because there are a lot of reasons that they may not be at school. There are levels of validity to different reasons for being absent, and it goes across the board in terms of race, economics, and neighborhoods post-pandemic.”

Multiple studies corroborate that attendance is the number one indicator of student success. “Our research shows over and over again that student attendance is an incredibly strong predictor of pretty much every outcome you care about: high school graduation, college ready, college enrollment, college graduation. It’s vital that students actually come to school every day,” said UChicago Consortium on School Research Director Elaine Allensworth. 

In a recent presentation to the District’s Board of Trustees, the district’s subcontractor for attendance, School Innovations & Achievement (SIA), highlighted the key factors affecting our district. The report also reported that student attendance is the number one predictor of student success—the more time a student spends in a classroom the more likely they are to succeed in school. 

According to a recent study conducted by Stanford professor Thomas Dee, an average day in the 2022-2023 school year had roughly 10% of K-12 students nationwide absent. By the end of the year, 25% of students last year were considered chronically absent.

Carson continued, “The new class of freshmen and sophomores were middle schoolers in the pandemic so they didn’t attend middle school, which is where most kids start going to school independently, so we cannot be shocked that kids are not able to get up and get ready to go to school.”

Attendance numbers simply have not recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for socio-economically disadvantaged, Hispanic, and Black youth. Chronic absenteeism can severely hinder students’ learning, particularly in the crucial early years. Kindergarten was the grade level with the most chronically absent students during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Also according to the SIA presentation, youth of color, English language learners, and youth with disabilities had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism. 

In the district, M-A is second only to East Palo Alto Academy in the percentage of students who are chronically absent, with 23% of students considered chronically absent in the 2022-2023 school year, 27% in the 2021-22 school year, and 17% in the 2019-20 school year. 

Carson attributes this increase to messaging from the state and District. “Our messaging when we returned back from the pandemic was: ‘Don’t come to school if you don’t feel good, don’t go to school if you need a mental health break.’ As a result, some parents and kids decided school was optional. When we actively use online programs like Canvas, there are kids who say, ‘Why do I have to be in class?’ which undermines the learning done in a classroom.”

Pacific Islanders were the racial group with the largest percentage of chronically absent students, with 51% of students considered to be chronically absent.

SIA also reported the disproportionate representation of Hispanic students among the severely chronically absent—students who missed more than 15% of the school year. Despite only accounting for 42% of the total student population, 78% of students who were severely chronically absent are Hispanic. 

The district’s attendance handbook and California education code describe a truant as a student who is absent from school for three full days in one school year without a valid excuse, or someone who is tardy or absent for more than any 30-minute period during the school day on three occasions in one school year, also without a valid excuse.

Upon the first-truancy violation, a first-truancy letter will be sent to the student’s parents. In the 2022-2023 school year, the district sent 3,219 first truancy letters to parents. After the second-truancy violation, a second-truancy letter will be sent to the parents. In the 2022-2023 school year, the district sent 1,932 second-truancy letters. The district also requires a parent conference to be scheduled after the second violation.

After the third-truancy violation, a student is officially categorized as habitually truant, meaning a student who has been reported as truant three or more times within the same school year. The school then sends out a third truancy letter, and the student is referred to a truancy mediation program. In the 2022-2023 school year, 323 third-truancy letters were sent out. 

The district’s conference improvement rate is 14.5%, slightly lower than the 17% average rate for the high school districts SIA serves. 

School counselors and teachers can also request a home visit, in which a school staff member will visit the home of a student that staff has concerns about, or whose parents are unresponsive to communication by school staff. “I’ve been doing home visits for 20 years, and when you knock on the door and say ‘We care about you and want you at school’, it’s very impactful,” said Carson.

She continued, “Working with students who are absent takes nuance along with straightforward actions. We need to have blunt instruments like sending a letter, but also every case is independent. It takes time and empathy, and sometimes it just takes a good solid push into the door.”

Ameya is a junior in his second year of journalism. He enjoys writing stories about education, sports, and local news and politics. In his free time he enjoys spending time with friends and watching movies.

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