When It Comes to School Absences, ‘Keep It Under Seven,’ LAUSD Says

If you think it’s no big deal to keep your kindergartner home from school, think again. Missing school early on can have a lifelong impact on your kids.

Students who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten and first grade are far less likely to read at grade level by third grade. And those who don’t read at grade level by third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.

If your child misses just one day of school, it actually takes three days to make up for the lost instructional time. These sobering facts were presented alongside some grim attendance statistics at LAUSD’s Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday.

With 70,000 LA Unified students missing more than 15 days of school last year, “that’s over 1 million days of instruction lost,” said Diane Pappas, senior advisor to the superintendent, who presented the data. “That is really significant.”

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The situation is starting to improve this fall, as LAUSD’s new Superintendent Austin Beutner makes attendance a top district priority, but it’s not happening fast enough. So far, chronic absenteeism has decreased 1.5 percent this September compared to last year, while excellent attendance has increased by 2.2 percent.

This fall’s uptick follows three years of attendance getting worse. The percentage of chronically absent students grew from 13.6 percent during the 2015-16 school year to 14.7 percent last year. The biggest increases were among African American students (1.5 percent increase), kids with disabilities (1.5 percent increase) and socioeconomically disadvantaged students (1.4 percent increase) – the same groups facing the largest academic achievement gaps.

LAUSD’s short-term goal is to bring that chronic absentee number down to 9 percent so there’s still a long way to go.

Likewise, the percentage of students with excellent attendance (seven or fewer days absent) fell from 69.5 percent in 2015-16 to 66.9 percent last year.

“Our mantra for the year is seven days or less,” Pappas said. “Keep it under seven.”

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Parents often underestimate by as much as 50 percent how much school their own kids have missed. A pilot program sending home mailers informing parents how many days their kids have missed will be expanded after Thanksgiving to 190,000 households district-wide. LAUSD is also offering attendance incentives such as Rams tickets to students and staff. A South Los Angeles pilot program offering Saturday makeup days will also be expanded.

The Board explored various reasons for chronic absenteeism, which include trauma, health and safety issues, poverty, homelessness, transportation challenges, immigration-related fears under the Trump administration, unwelcoming school climates, bullying, disengagement and negative interactions with teachers.

However, there are distinct pockets of hope demonstrating that poverty is not always destiny. Several schools serving at-risk kids have managed to buck the chronic absenteeism trend through an all-hands-on-deck approach that includes focusing on attendance not only for students, but also school leaders, teachers and staff.

Johnathan Chaikittirattana, one of three principals at Linda Esperanza Marquez High School, a pilot school in Huntington Park, said he and his staff model perfect attendance for their students. At the portion of the school that he oversees, chronic student absences have dropped from 14.6 percent in 2015 to 3.4 percent last year, while excellent attendance rose from 72.5 percent to 91.2 percent.

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“It starts with me,” Chaikittirattana said. “If I have perfect attendance, the teachers are going to follow me. Six years later, I still I have perfect attendance, and 98 percent of our staff have excellent attendance. It starts there.”

At Charles R. Drew middle school, improving school leadership and instruction and raising academic expectations has also improved attendance. School leaders are in each classroom at least twice a week giving feedback to teachers and helping create joint lesson plans.

“We have to engage our students. That may not have been happening,” said Principal Maisha James-McIntosh. Test scores have also gone up as attendance has improved, and as expectations of students increased. “It’s no longer OK to get a D or an F. You must get a C or above.”

The 107th Street Elementary School, part of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, incentivizes good attendance with incremental rewards every 25 days. The school also asks the kids why they think it’s important to attend school in order to learn what motivates them, and leaders make an effort to make learning more fun.

A recent report by TNTP underscores the importance of instruction. In The Opportunity Myth, TNTP researchers examined student outcomes in a variety of public school systems and found that “Some of the biggest barriers are created by decisions very much within our control: whether students get the opportunity to work on grade-appropriate assignments, or are systematically assigned work that is appropriate for kids several years younger, whether they have teachers who ask them to find answers to challenging problems, or who think it’s acceptable to assign them the task of copying answers.”

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Nearly all of the LAUSD school leaders who have succeeded in improving attendance spoke of a personalized approach, such as reaching out with phone calls or going into the community and to churches to show that the schools actually care about the kids and their families.

Parents sometimes complain about the impersonal nature of Robocalls, as well as pressuring and shaming of parents whose kids might be missing school for health or reasons beyond their control. Because school revenue is based on attendance, some say that the relentless focus on attendance makes them feel like their kids are treated like dollar signs instead of people.

It’s absolutely true that LAUSD is facing a financial crisis, and district officials estimate that its efforts to improve attendance will save LAUSD $17 million a year. However, simple kindness, caring and personal connections can go a long way toward making kids and parents feel welcome at school and more motivated to show up.

“Having a friendly, welcoming main office is very important,” said Board member Scott Schmerelson (BD3). “When they get smirks and frowns from the main office, they just want to turn around and leave…What’s free is a smile and a welcome. Our classified staff are so important.”

The bottom line for parents: Kids can’t learn when they’re not in school, so we need to take seriously our responsibility to make sure kids get to school on time every day. The bottom line for LAUSD: schools need to take seriously their responsibility to make sure school staff are welcoming, and instruction is excellent and well worth our kids’ time.