Monday, September 30, 2013


Kamala Harris' report says one-quarter of elementary students are truant, jeopardizing their academic futures and adding to school funding problems.

By Teresa Watanabe, L.A. Times |

Kamala Harris

California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris says the truancy rate for elementary school students has reached a crisis level. (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles Times / November 30, 2010)


September 30, 2013, 12:09 a.m.  ::  One out of every four California elementary school students — nearly 1 million total — are truant each year, an "attendance crisis" that is jeopardizing their academic futures and depriving schools of needed dollars, the state attorney general said in a report (follows) to be released Monday.

In her first annual study of elementary student truancy, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris said school districts lost $1.4 billion in 2010-11 in state education dollars, which are distributed based on student attendance. Those losses amounted to $340 million in L.A. County, the report said, exacerbating the financial crisis in recent years that has resulted in deep cuts to school staff and programs.

"The California Constitution guarantees every child the right to an education, yet we are failing our youngest children, as early as kindergarten," Harris said in a statement. "This crisis is not only crippling for our economy, it is a basic threat to public safety."

Among counties, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and Calaveras had the highest truancy rates — about 30% — last year. Los Angeles County's rate was 20.5%, with about 166,000 truant elementary students.

Among school districts, three of the five elementary campuses with truancy rates at 90% or higher were in the Pasadena Unified School District, where the overall truancy rate increased to 66% last year from 17% in 2008-09. Eric Sahakian, Pasadena's director of child welfare, attendance and safety, said "dramatic budget cuts" in staff handling attendance as well as financial hardship among families during the recession contributed to the district's elevated rates. The system has launched a new attendance improvement plan this year.

Los Angeles Unified's overall truancy rates also rose during the recession to 43% last year from 28% in 2009-10 and lost $126 million in state dollars this year. Part of the problem, district officials said, was the cut of nearly 30% of its specialized attendance counselors over the last five years. But under a program launched last year, the rates have started to decline.

State law, which requires children ages 6 to 18 to attend school, defines truants as those who are absent or tardy more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse three times in a school year. Those absent without a valid excuse for 10% of the school year are considered chronically truant and at high risk of academic failure.

One 2011 study of 640 California children found that only 17% of students chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were reading at the third-grade level by then, compared with 64% of those who attended regularly. More than 250,000 elementary students were chronically truant in 2011-12, the report said.

Harris' interest in the issue was sparked when, as San Francisco district attorney, she found that a disproportionate number of criminals and crime victims were high school dropouts whose academic failure began much earlier, said Brian Nelson, special assistant attorney general.

But some community advocates were wary about the deepening participation of law enforcement in truancy issues. Ashley Franklin of the Community Rights Campaign, a Los Angeles organizing effort to minimize such involvement in schools, said legal threats to truant parents or their students would have a negative effect.

Harris and others say law enforcement can make a difference, however. When Harris began sending notices informing parents they could be subject to criminal penalties if they don't send their children to school, truancy rates fell 40%, Nelson said.

The L.A. city attorney's office and L.A. Unified send a similar letter to all families at the start of the school year.

But officials stressed that prosecution is a last resort. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office prosecuted only four parents in the last year — including one Los Angeles man who refused to send his three children to school for at least three years — but has assisted more than 3,400 families in 350 schools through its Abolish Chronic Truancy program, said Lydia Bodin, the deputy district attorney who heads it. Working with families to inform them of the consequences of excessive absences and connecting them to needed help, officials say they have reduced truancy by more than half in selected elementary schools.

L.A. Unified is also shifting from a punitive to supportive approach, said Debra Duardo, the district's executive director of student health and human services. A new program particularly focusing on kindergartners and ninth-graders — whose truancy rates are highest — features close monitoring of attendance data, parent meetings, and increased use of incentives and services.

Harris' report calls for similar strategies, noting the need to support families struggling with key causes of truancy: poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

Such supportive approaches offer the best chance for progress, said Elicia Frank, a Los Angeles paralegal and single mother of a son who became chronically truant in high school and dropped out. Frank said she went through cycles of poverty and homelessness. She did not always have the money to buy clothes for her three children, one reason her son began to balk at attending class, and they frequently switched schools because they often moved.

Eventually, Frank got back on her feet — and so did her son, after she got help from educators, social workers, community activists and law enforcement. Israel, 20, is studying for a high school equivalency degree and found a job as a soccer and crisis prevention coach.

How California should deal with truancy

The solution is straightforward: Hold accountable everyone who bears responsibility for getting kids to school.

Op-Ed By Arne Duncan and Kamala D. Harris |

South Gate school

Truancy is a problem that affects young elementary school children in addition to older students, say Arne Duncan and Kamala D. Harris. Above, students gather for morning assembly at Montara Avenue Elementary School in South Gate. (Los Angeles Times)

September 30, 2013

Millions of desks sit empty in elementary school classrooms because of truancy each year, costing schools billions of dollars, wasting public resources and squandering one of the country's most precious resources: its young people.

We tend to think of truancy as something that starts in junior high or high school, but nationwide, about 1 in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students miss a month of school each year due to absences. In California, you could fill Staples Center 13 times over with the 250,000 students who missed 18 days or more last year. About 1 million elementary school students in the state were truant — defined in California as three or more unexcused absences or tardies — during the 2012-13 school year.

Not surprisingly, students with high rates of unexcused absences fall behind. And teachers at schools with high truancy rates find themselves forced to teach the same material again and again.

Chronic absenteeism is especially damaging to disadvantaged students, who are already at higher risk of falling behind their peers academically. Missing school widens achievement gaps, and catching up can be difficult. Students who are truant in elementary school are more likely to be truant in middle and high school, when truancy is closely linked to an increased chance of a child dropping out.

Dropouts cost states billions in incarceration, lost productivity and lost tax revenues. Studies project that increasing graduation rates by just 10 percentage points would lead to as many as 3,000 fewer murders and nearly 175,000 fewer aggravated assaults nationwide.

The solution to truancy? It's straightforward: Hold accountable everyone who bears responsibility for getting kids to school.

School districts already have the tools, as well as the legal responsibility, to intervene when a child is truant. And it's clear that intervention helps. Truant elementary students whose attendance improves are half as likely to drop out in high school compared with students whose truancy continues or worsens.

School districts have long taken daily attendance, but they need to use the information they gather to create an early warning system that identifies children who are frequently absent. School administrators should contact guardians immediately when a child is truant and insist on a meeting to find solutions.

As needed, schools should connect families with social services, public health and community resources to address underlying problems. Parents must be held accountable, and law enforcement should support interventions that educate and bolster struggling students and parents. The business community should be enlisted to help create incentives to improve attendance, like rewards for schools and families with improved attendance.

California is one of only four states (along with New York, Colorado and Illinois) that does not collect individual student attendance data at the state level. That should change. These data are crucial for states to hold schools and districts accountable. Every state needs systems to track truancy, connect attendance to academic achievement and, where there are warning signs, intervene swiftly.

At the federal level, the Department of Education has invested in the revitalization of communities through its Promise Neighborhoods program, and improving attendance has been a core strategy for some grantees. One of the department's largest investments in innovation is helping to expand a national program for at-risk students, which has improving attendance among its key goals. Other grants support school counselors and the creation of more positive school climates. And low-performing schools receiving federal funds to turn themselves around have commonly put resources toward reducing chronic absenteeism. All of these approaches can serve as models if they prove successful.

On Monday, a diverse group of local, state and federal leaders will meet in Los Angeles to discuss a new report by the California Department of Justice, "In School and on Track." It can be found online at, and will be updated annually to measure and compare the progress of California's counties and school districts.

The report provides a window into truancy's toll on the nation's economy, public safety and children. If state and federal leaders work together — alongside schools and parents — we can stop this waste of potential and get our children to class on time, every day. The price we pay otherwise is just too high.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education. Kamala D. Harris is attorney general of California.

  • REPORT: +IN SCHOOL/ON TRACK: Attorney General's 2013 Report on
    California's Elementary School Truancy & Absenteeism Crisis

No comments: