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Turlock Unified continues to crack down on chronic absenteeism
Statewide report shows progress in improving school attendance
Cunningham My School vid pic
Cunningham Elementary School staff and students produced a "My School" music video to promote school attendance and pride. - photo by Photo Contributed

While the number of chronically absent students at Turlock Unified School District has been on a steady decline over the past few years, Student Services Director Gil Ogden said there are no plans on the horizon to stop efforts to keep students in school and on time.


“We are currently implementing enhanced support at the school sites as the district PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports) team is focusing on attendance this year,” said Ogden. “We still have high levels of chronic absence in our special education populations, however, this may be attributed to special needs students having more medical conditions that require ‘excused absences.’


“We are very concerned with our economically disadvantaged students and we are providing supports with our Character Coaches, CSU Student Mentors and Positive Behavior Supports,” continued Ogden.


A student is considered chronically absent if they miss more than 10 percent of the school year with either excused and unexcused absences. This is different than truancy, which is based exclusively on unexcused absences.


Ogden said that TUSD has roughly 14,000 students, and in the first quarter of the 2016-17 school year, there were 980 students that were chronically absent. Noting that this is important as student attendance patterns typically remain the same throughout the school year, Ogden said TUSD is going to target those students for attendance interventions, which may include phone calls to parents, chronic absence letters, counseling, parent-teacher conferences, and positive interventions and feedback for attendance.


“Reducing chronic attendance and truancy is critical for all students, however, those in grades kindergarten through third grade are most affected as attendance patterns start early,” said Ogden. “In fact, studies show that only 17 percent of first grade students that are chronically absent are able to read at grade level by the third grade, compared to 66 percent non-chronically absent first graders that are able to read at or above grade level in the third grade.


“Also, studies show that the largest variable about predicting academic success in the fifth grade for socially economically disadvantaged students was chronic attendance in kindergarten,” continued Ogden.


Ogden said the most effective method for reducing truancy at TUSD is building positive relationships with students, providing them with supports, such as an advisement period at Turlock High School where they can connect with a teacher, and creating an environment where students want to come to school because it is meaningful to them.


“Strategies as simple as greeting students by name in the morning as they enter the classroom have shown to significantly reduce behavior problems, increase attendance and decrease tardiness,” said Ogden. “That simple positive connection each day becomes a beacon of light to a struggling student, especially a student that may come from a challenging home life.”


In Attorney General Kamala Harris’ fourth annual statewide report on elementary school truancy and chronic absenteeism, “In School + On Track 2016,” data showed that an estimated 210,000 kindergarten through fifth grade students in California were considered chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year, making up 7.3 percent of elementary students throughout the state.


“To be smart on crime and invest wisely in California’s economic future, we must eliminate elementary school truancy,” said Harris. “Chronically absent children are far more likely to drop out of school and enter into the criminal justice system. This is a solvable problem: with better data, monitoring, and communication with parents, we can continue to make significant strides toward ensuring students are in school and on track to meet their full potential.”


The report confirms earlier research on the disproportionately high rates of absenteeism among African American, Native American and Pacific Islander elementary school students, special education students, and foster and homeless youth, and highlights that significant progress is being made with school districts like TUSD increasingly taking action to ensure children are in school, on time, every day.


Early attendance patterns also have a significant impact on academic achievement, according to data from this year’s report, which revealed that three-quarters of students who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade did not meet the California state standards in math and English language arts in the third grade.