Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version. Today’s feature is the final in a series of “attendance" Bright Spots, in advance of  Attendance Awareness Month in September.

Despite financial constraints, leadership changes and competing priorities, a California school district successfully launched a chronic absence effort that aims to shift the conversation and the school system.

Talk is switching from average daily attendance, which can paint an incomplete picture, to chronic absence — students missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. And the system is testing new strategies to reduce chronic absence, after gathering data to better understand and illustrate the issue.

“It takes time to bring people on board, to help them understand the new language around attendance and to increase awareness and capacity to do the work,” says Barbara Kronick, student support and health services director for Sacramento City Unified School District, a local grade-level reading coalition member.  

Kronick was among a small group formed in 2011 to address chronic absence, with a grant from The California Endowment, a foundation collaborating with Attendance Works, a national initiative addressing chronic absence and a GLR Campaign Partner. The group included school district staff and local partners — the nonprofit Community Link and the University of California, Davis Center for Regional Change.  

“It’s going to make a difference for kids. You can’t teach to an empty desk,” says Kronick. And when students attend school, they can get help from the student support centers Kronick oversees in 21 schools. “Our students live in a very high-poverty area and have significant social-emotional needs. If we can address those, they’ll be much more present in the classroom.”  

The effort is now led by a task force including principals, community partners, school staff and district administrators. Briefs highlighting compelling data and research have been produced. And in fall 2014, an effort to bring more principals on board begins. “Having three years of data makes the issue compelling and we’re offering something they can do,” says Kronick.  

All schools will receive a chronic absence toolkit. Interventions will be tested at four schools, forming a learning community. “We’re giving everybody information but doing a deeper dig with some,” says Kronick.

Because funding is limited, principals need to use “existing resources,” hence an effort to train school office managers and attendance clerks especially in more than 50 schools without student support centers. “You have to find staff within the schools willing to” learn new information and ways to work, says Kronick. “A lot of it is about reaching out to families and presenting the information to elicit dialogue.”   

The California Endowment grant enabled the district to collect and analyze data, with help from researchers at UC Davis and Community Link. Drilling down on the data from district to school to student helped spur interest, says Kronick. Student support center social workers also identified attendance barriers by meeting with chronically absent students and their families.  

Although the district has been grappling with a superintendent transition, budget cuts and the adoption of the Common Core education standards, chronic absence recently gained attention after being named one of eight indicators that must be monitored by schools receiving funding for a new state initiative to help at-risk students. “It gives us more momentum,” says Kronick. “And we’re ahead because we have great research.”   

Key research findings include:   

  • Between 2010 and 2013, more than 1 in 10 students were chronically absent each year. Almost 14 percent of these students were chronically absent all three years.  
  • Most chronically absent students lived in low-income households.  
  • Chronic absence is particularly high in kindergarten through third grade.  
  • Each chronically absent student faced, on average, 10 attendance barriers, most commonly student physical health, parent/caregiver discretion, transportation, academic issues and student mental health.  

Future work includes engaging the community and making the effort sustainable, which will likely require a top-level school district champion and district willingness to “own” the work. For now, says Kronick, “we keep chipping away.”  

For more information, contact Barbara Kronick at 916-643-9144 or Barbara-Kronick@scusd.edu. Research briefs are available here.

Photos: Sacramento City Unified School District; Publication Date: Summer 2014

To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net.

Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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