Pasadena Unified School District’s efforts to fight truancy paying off

Sarah Favot, Contributing Writer
Pasadena Star-News

Pasadena Star-News
By: Sarah Favot, Pasadena Star-News
Posted: June 01, 2014

PASADENA – A school district-wide push to combat truancy appears to be paying off, according to truancy data obtained by this news organization.

Average daily attendance in the Pasadena Unified School District during fall semester of 2013 was higher than during the same period in 2012, according to the truancy data. The higher attendance equals more dollars for the district.

The increase will result in $222,000 in additional funds coming into the district just based on fall attendance data because students attended 5,584 more school days this fall semester compared to last year. Disbursal of state dollars for school districts is based on average daily attendance rates.

Eighteen percent of students had three or more full day unexcused absences in the fall of 2012/2013, according to the data. That figure decreased to 12 percent this fall.

District officials expect a similar increase during the second semester. Data have not yet been released.

School district spokesman Adam Wolfson said the additional funds are not the only benefit of increased attendance.

“The important thing is we have more students attending school and being exposed to more instruction time,” Wolfson said.

The push kicked off in September when teams of school officials and volunteers visited students’ homes who had become chronically absent to determine why students weren’t attending school and to ensure attendance rolls were accurate.

The school contracted with a software firm, Attention 2 Attendance, for $90,000 to produce weekly automated notification letters to parents when students become truant or have an excessive number of excused absences.

Before the district moved to the automated system, about 2,000 letters were sent to parents. As of March, 31,000 letters were sent.

A sample letter to parents of a student who has had more than five excused absences reminds parents that students shouldn’t go to school when they are experiencing vomiting or diarrhea, but should attend if the student has less severe symptoms like a headache.

“Crucial learning time is lost if they are not in class,” the letter reads.

The parent notification letters were not well-received at first.

School board member Tom Selinske said he received a letter when his daughter was absent from school due to illness. He described the feeling of receiving a letter as “love-hate.”

“I appreciate it mostly as a parent in that it triggered conversations and awareness from a parent’s point of view that we didn’t have,” he said.

Eric Sahakian, director of the district’s Child Welfare, Attendance and Safety, said his office alone received about 7 to 10 phone calls a day from concerned parents in the first month of implementation.

“In hindsight we welcome those phone calls because it was more about walking parents through the process and educating them,” he said.

State law requires children ages 6 to 18 to attend school. And the district is required to notify parents when students are truant.

The school district has also partnered with the Pasadena Police Department and held about six days this school year where school officials and police officers pick up students who are loitering and partner them with counselors and mental health professionals.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has also focused on student attendance by introducing a legislative package this year, along with Pasadena Assemblyman Chris Holden, to target truancy and chronic absenteeism, which means a student has missed more than 10 percent of school days.

Another benefit of automating the notification letters is it is expected truancy rates will be less varied, Sahakian said.

In previous school years, data regarding truancies varied per school. For example, in 2012/2013, Pasadena High School’s truancy rate was 8 percent, while John Muir High School’s was 40 percent.

Sahakian said the staff responsible with tracking truancy and attendance varied at each school.

In the 2011/2012 school-year, the district submitted inaccurate truancy data to the state.

“There’s no softness with this now; the data shows a certain number of absences does negatively impact a child’s academic career,” said board member Renatta Cooper at a recent meeting. “The number is much smaller than we thought heretofore.”

Superintendent Jon R. Gundry said data shows a direct correlation between middle school attendance and high school graduation rates.