Tackling California's truancy crisis
Jill Habig, special counsel to AG Kamala Harris, discusses the impact of chronic absences
Last month, California Attorney General Kamala Harris unveiled a free online toolkit designed to help fight what her office calls a "truancy crisis" in the state's elementary schools, as well as a lack of understanding by parents around how crucial early childhood school attendance is to learning.
Not long after, the White House announced a new federal initiative also aimed at truancy. The new My Brother's Keeper Success Mentors Initiative is a 10-city program combating absenteeism by pairing mentors with students three times per week. It's slated to take place in Austin, Boston, Columbus, Denver, Miami-Dade, New York City, Philadelphia, Providence, San Antonio, and Seattle.
Education Dive recently spoke with attorney Jill E. Habig — who serves as special counsel to Attorney General Harris, advising her on issues related to children's justice — to find out more about Harris' partnership with Ad Council and The California Endowment, the root causes of chronic truancy, and the potential economic impacts of absenteeism.
EDUCATION DIVE: What are some of the impacts of chronic truancy on California's students, their lives, and their communities? Why was it important to tackle this issue in particular?
JILL E. HABIG: Attorney General Harris has focused really explicitly on elementary school and chronic absences because she believes we need to start as early as possible if we want to address the achievement gap and the dropout rate.
What we've seen in our research, and in the research of our partners, is that chronic absences as early as kindergarten and first grade have a significant effect on learning and academic achievement for children.
If a child misses 10% or more of kindergarten and first grade, only 17% of those kids are reading at grade level by the end of third grade. And the reason why that's important is because kids who aren't reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to eventually drop out of high school.
We see a direct connection between attendance and chronic absence in early and elementary school, beginning in kindergarten, and long-term academic achievement effects for children in California.
How bad is the problem in California, as opposed to other states, that the attorney general's office became involved?
HABIG: The attorney general has been focused on this issue for several years. Actually, as a district attorney, she worked with homicide victims who were under the age of 25 and found that 94% of them were high school dropouts. That led her back to the cycle of elementary school chronic absence and the long-term effects on kids.
In California, we really do have a crisis. We’ve seen from the research that the attorney general has commissioned that between 230,000 to 250,000 elementary school students are chronically absent in a single year. That means they're missing 10% or more of school each year.
Does your office have any idea as to why this is happening?
HABIG: We see a number of causes that correlate with children and families who are struggling for other reasons: poverty, substance abuse, unsafe neighborhoods, homelessness, disabilities, and chronic health issues. Asthma, for example, is a large barrier to attendance for children. There are other acute and chronic health issues where families just don't have regular access to healthcare.
Are there any school districts in particular that are doing a good job of fighting truancy?
HABIG: We have seen a number of school districts in the state that are really gaining momentum. The 2015 “In School and On Track” report contains a number of case studies of districts that have been able to significantly decrease their chronic absence levels.
But what we've also seen is real investment inside school districts. Tracking and collecting this data allows them to make sure kids aren't falling through the cracks.
Oakland Unified School District, for example, does a good job of tracking absences and has really integrated the issue into the school district, so that teachers know who’s missing from the classroom. And they know who is at risk for falling behind academically rather than just waiting until the end of the school year, looking back, and realizing how many children have already fallen behind.
It's really important that the school districts track these numbers starting from the very beginning of the school year so they can intervene quickly before it's too late for that child to make it up.
Beginning in 2013, Attorney General Harris commissioned the first “In School and On Track" report on truancy and absences in elementary schools across California. We've been commissioning our own research for the last three years now on this issue, across the state.
Is this an opportunity for California to set a precedent, and is there any overlap with the federal initiative that President Obama has announced with My Brother’s Keeper?
HABIG: Absolutely! We are very excited to work with My Brothers Keeper, the U.S. Department of Education, and the White House on their initiative. California has really been leading the way on this issue for a few years now, in terms of drawing more and more attention to the importance of chronic absence and attendance in elementary schools.
We're very pleased that the federal government has really stepped up and made this a priority nationally. We see chronic absence is also now included in the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Is truancy an economic issue?
HABIG: Absolutely. In California, for example, we lose over $46 billion a year because of high school dropouts. That includes lowered tax revenues, lost productivity, lost wages, public safety costs, etc.
We can deal with this problem spending way less than $46 billion a year if we prevent our children from falling behind in the first place, instead of spending that money on the back end after children have already fallen far behind and have dropped out.
Are there ways in which school districts can work together or cooperate to tackle the problem?
HABIG: Yes. We highlight in the report a number of examples of how school districts can work with each other, as well as with community-based organizations and other agencies like child welfare agencies and social services within their communities and counties.
One of the best ways they can do that is through data collection and data sharing, to make sure kids are not falling through the cracks. Our foster youth, for example, have much higher rates of truancy and chronic absence because of the instability. They could be moving through districts, so there is a real need for district-to-district communication.
One very important development on that front is that California's Department of Education has just announced that they will begin collecting chronic absence data and attendance data on a statewide basis next year.
This is something that Attorney General Harris has been fighting for for over two years now, and she actually introduced legislation in 2014 to require statewide attendance data. That way, when students move, they don't fall through the cracks. We are really excited that the board of ed is now stepping up to the plate and is going to begin to collect data.
Aside from California, is there enough data out there to compare the situation against other states?
HABIG: It's very tough to compare state-to-state, unfortunately. And the reason for that is that states often use different definitions for what truancy means and what chronic absence means. It is really difficult to track these young people across states.
In California, our chronic absence rates are too high. We have almost a quarter of a million elementary school students who are falling behind every year, when they have barely even started their education.
Aside from the online tool kit that was recently released, are there any other plans in the works to address the problem?
HABIG: Yes. We will be releasing our 2015 truancy report, which is our fourth annual report with updated data across the state and updated information on best practices. We will also be participating in September “Attendance Awareness” month along with our partners at Attendance Works and the state Department of Education.
We try to emphasize this issue during the back-to-school time, because a student’s attendance in that first month of school is really predictive of their attendance throughout the school year. If we can set the tone and put districts in a position to succeed and engage families early in the school year, then we can set those kids up for success throughout the school year.
Is there any other facet of the truancy issue that people should be aware of?
HABIG: One thing that I would like to mention is this: You asked that the reasons why kids miss school, and I talked about transportation issues, health, and other things — but one other thing that really drove us is the research that the Attorney General has done through partnerships with the California Endowment and the Ad Council.
We also found that, although parents really place a high value on education, they aren't always aware of the impact of absences on the long-term goals that they have for their child, like graduating from high school and going to college.
We really believe that there is low-hanging fruit here in terms of avoidable absences that can be corrected if parents and teachers and families better understood the impact of absences and how to keep track of their children's absences. Most of the parents that we talked to during our research didn't realize that just two absences a month could actually set their child behind academically, even as early as kindergarten. If parents have that information, they can act accordingly to make sure that their child doesn't fall behind.
And if teachers have that information, they can intervene early enough to help that family with whatever is keeping that child from being able to attend school every day.
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