Palmdale School District confronts attendance perceptions to get turnaroundTom Chorneau, Managing Editor
SI&A Cabinet Report
The challenges facing Palmdale School District probably are not unique. Once surrounded by a thriving middle class community, the high-desert region has been battered by the economic downturn and the collapse of residential real estate.
The district serves a student population that is nearly 75 percent Hispanic and a large majority of the total enrollment – 82 percent – qualify for free and reduced price meals. Although four of the district’s 26 schools boast scores of 800 or higher on state testing, the district is in Year Three of Program Improvement.
Palmdale has had for some time an average daily attendance rate of over 95 percent – which might be acceptable in many places, but not here.
After making attendance a district focal point about two years ago, drawing in new resources and implementing a new attendance management system from School Innovations & Advocacy – Palmdale reported a jump of .19 percent in just one year.
That’s an increase from from 95.56 percent to 95.75 percent.
Palmdale officials said the effort was important because of the revenue benefits for the district – close to $400,000 in additional state support. But more important was the 35,000 hours of additional learning time capture that will benefit those students for years to come.
“Kids don’t normally show up at high school and all of a sudden have a truancy problem,” said John Porter, assistant superintendent for special education and student services at Palmdale. “Attendance problems develop a number of different ways, for a number of reasons – but a key is that much of it starts in grade school with bad attendance habits.”
In some high school districts, attendance problems often are tied to truancy issues that parents are sometimes unaware of. In some elementary districts, especially in higher-income communities, attendance problems can be linked to parents taking their children out of school themselves for one reason or another.
At Palmdale, officials said, the attendance challenge is something of a combination: kids are deciding to skip school too often, and parents often are too accepting of that choice.
Part of their mission, Porter said, had to be aimed at changing attitudes among both parents and students regarding the importance of not missing school.
“There has been, in some cases, a feeling that ‘Well, it’s just kindergarten or it’s just first grade, it’s not that big a deal to miss a day here or a day there,’” he said. “But before you know it, a student can have missed twenty or more days and that’s over 10 percent of the school year. That is a big deal.”
Adding to the mix of issues, the district suffers a mass exodus of students around the Christmas and Easter holidays, as students from families with strong foreign ties return to their homelands, regardless of the school holiday schedule.
The district’s primary attendance intervention vehicle was through the School Attendance Review Board, panels empowered under state law to help truants or recalcitrant students and their parents solve school attendance and behavior problems through existing school or community services.
“We had some parent attitudes that needed to be addressed,” said Mike Ohren, Director of Student Services. “We attempted to accomplish this by having meetings and using outreach. We had teachers calling parents, we had administrators calling -- the problem was that we needed law enforcement and the district attorney to help deliver our message.”
For years the district has had a contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, giving them access to deputies that perform a number of duties, including at times serving as truant officers. Secondly, a program run out of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office – Abolish Chronic Truancy – has become active in the district, adding another element of gravity from the criminal justice system.
But Porter and Orhen also noted the support and expertise provided through SI&A’s Attention2 Attendance® program – a web-based system that provides data analysis while streamlining clerical duties related to parental notices and conference scheduling.
The resulting increase generated $377,062 in additional state support to the district – money that could be used to hire more teachers, buy new instructional materials and make other improvements.