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Truancy levels hit school districts' funding
Report looks at options to curb absences
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California school districts lost out on $1.4 billion in one year because of a rising tide of truant elementary school students, according to a new report from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The report, “In School and On Track,” found that one million elementary school students were truant in the 2011-12 school year and 250,000 were truant 18 or more school days. The truancies cost California’s school districts $1.4 billion in lost funds.

“The California Constitution guarantees every child the right to an education, yet we are failing our youngest children, as early as kindergarten,” said Attorney General Kamala D. Harris. “These are children as young as five years old who are out of school, falling behind, and too many of them never catch up. This crisis is not only crippling for our economy, it is a basic threat to public safety. It’s time for accountability and to craft real solutions at every level — from parents to school districts, to law enforcement — to solve this problem."

Stanislaus County had 61,398 elementary students in 2012. Of those, 12,255 were truant during the year, for a 20 percent rate, according to the report. Calaveras County had the highest rate at 31.3 percent and Yuba County had the lowest rate at 4.9 percent.

The Attorney General’s Office commissioned the report because studies have linked high rates of truancy to ongoing criminal activity.

The report recommends California create a statewide system to collect student attendance records. It also proposes law enforcement help with early intervention and that parents of chronic truancy cases be prosecuted in court.

The report also recommends that school districts improve the way truant students are monitored and that school administrators meet with parents immediately when a child is truant.

Both of these recommendations have been undertaken by the Turlock Unified School District for several years in its attempt to keep students in class.

Five years ago the district launched an anti-truancy program called “Just Say Go,” which spread the message that one missed day means a child falls three days behind.

“It was a very successful program because it made parents aware of how absences can affect their child’s education,” said TUSD Director of Student Services Gil Ogden. “We’ve also put a focus on engaging the students in the classroom. If they like school, they are more likely to go.”

Ogden said TUSD puts an emphasis on tackling truancy issues at the early stages of a child’s education, particularly kindergarten through third grade. Students in these grades who miss more than 10 days a year, are on average one to two years behind their peers by the time they reach fifth grade and are three times more likely to drop out in high school, Ogden said.

If a TUSD student has one unexcused absence a parent is contacted, Ogden said. Three unexcused absences earn a letter home and five triggers a School Attendance Review Team meeting. At 10 unexcused absences the matter is taken up at the district level and after 10 it is referred to the Stanislaus County Office of Education, where it can continue to the Stanislaus County Superior Court.

“We just had one family fined $2,200 for habitual truancy,” Ogden said.