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Students Missing Class Is A Red Alert — But Researchers Say They Have A New Tool To Address The School-Absence Problem


Educators consider chronic absenteeism a red alert — a blaring sign that a student might be academically at risk.

But schools and parents now have a new tool to investigate the problem, in the form of open-source data collected by UC Davis and research partners Attendance Works and Children Now.

Together, they produced “Seize the Data Opportunity in California: Using Chronic Absence to Improve Educational Outcomes.” The report uses an interactive map to pinpoint the type of schools that struggle with chronic absences.

Chronic absence is defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year for any reason, a level educators say puts students at academic risk.

The report found more than 800 public schools in California had high rates of chronic absence, where 20 percent or more of their students met the risk threshold.

Schools have collected attendance data for years. But a new state reporting requirement allows researchers to better examine the depth of the problem.

Hedy Chang is executive director of Attendance Works, a research projects that advocates for improved attendance. She said schools can use the data to identify grade-school students who need help.

“If a kid misses so much school in kindergarten and first [grade], the chances of them reading proficiently by the end of third grade are pretty slim,” Chang told Capital Public Radio. “If a kid isn’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade, because they were chronically absent earlier, it means that even though they show up, they’re still falling behind.”

The study found many small rural counties in Northern California struggle with high levels of chronic absence.

Nancy Erbstein, an assistant research professor at the UC Davis School of Education who contributed to the report, said there’s no single cause for chronic absenteeism.

Through her ongoing work with Sacramento area schools, she said she’s found more than 10 barriers to school attendance. Those vary from students lacking transportation or experiencing physical health challenges to parents dealing with stress and mental health disabilities. She added that chronic absenteeism remains an especially acute problem among children in foster care.

Chang cited a success story at Oakland’s Roosevelt Middle School, which created an attendance team. It identified students at risk, used school nurses and mentors and other staff to check in with students multiple times per week about barriers to attendance. The school, she said, dramatically reduced its rate of chronically absent students from 15 percent to 5 percent.

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