Hayward, Berkeley schools praised for attendance improvement, dropout prevention

Rebecca Parr, Contributing Writer
Inside Bay Area News

Hayward and Berkeley school districts have been recognized by the state for improved attendance and dropout prevention.

The two are among 11 districts named as models by the state Department of Education. The districts were singled out for their collaborating with the community and measuring and reporting chronic absenteeism. Hayward and Berkeley were the only Bay Area districts named.

"We are making progress with a greater awareness of how chronic absenteeism in the early grades contributes to the state's dropout problem," said Tom Torlakson, California's schools chief.

Chronic absenteeism is when a student misses 10 percent or more of the school year and includes excused absences. Hayward had a 95 percent attendance rate in 2014.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson reads a book about California to a room of third-graders at Morello Park Elementary School in Martinez on March 1, 2013. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

"About 15 percent of our kindergartners are missing 10 percent or more of classes," said Andrew Kevy, Hayward's director of Child Welfare and Attendance. "Some parents still have a feeling that kindergarten is not as important academically."

Today, academics start in preschool, and kindergarten also is crucial to help children transition from being toddlers, he said. "There is so much learning that goes on beyond the academics," Kevy said.

Rather than just punish students who miss a lot of school, both districts have focused on learning the reasons for low attendance and figuring out how to help the student and family. Hayward and Berkeley have forged strong relationships with community agencies.

"We want to address those reasons with support so that students can come to school regularly and feel safe and comfortable," said Susan Craig, Berkeley's director of Student Services.

"We go on the premise that most students want to be in school. Even teenagers want to be at school where their friends are. It could be homelessness, depression, health issues, loss, substance abuse -- there are myriad reasons that prevent students from getting to school or wanting to be at school," she said.

The district provides substance abuse counseling and intervention at its middle and high schools, and parent coordinators advocate for families at the elementary schools.

More than a third of the district's students attend Berkeley High.

"With it being downtown and an open campus, our attendance rate was atrocious," Craig said. The district hired a dean of attendance for the school, and the rate went from 92 percent in 2010 to 94.6 percent in 2013-14.

The Hayward district launched an attendance awareness campaign at the beginning of the school year, and has sent letters to parents of students in danger of becoming chronically absent.

Hayward schools also partnered with police to ask merchants to display decals warning that the businesses report truant students. The district also hands out tip sheets for store owners, encouraging them to talk to students about the importance of being in school.

The district is making better use of its data, sending absenteeism information to the schools at midyear so they can share it with parents, Kevy said.

"It's not just a district issue; it's also a parent issue, a community issue," he said.

Hayward has made it easier for students to make up missed courses or improve grades needed to graduate, expanding its credit recovery program. Also, in a partnership with Cal State East Bay, dropout prevention specialists are mentoring students at two of the district's high schools.

Berkeley has a separate high school for credit recovery.

"Nearly all the high school students who fall behind on credits are missing a lot of school," Craig said.