“Every district deals with truancy issues and it’s no different here,” said Excelsior Middle School Principal Charles Miller. “But we do have very tight procedures on campus and work closely with the families to keep (attendance) on track.”
Truancy – especially in the elementary and middle schools, where attendance is parent driven – is an ongoing problem in East County, where hundreds of thousands of school-directed dollars each year are lost to absenteeism. And because the state no longer differentiates between excused and unexcused absences – districts are paid only for those students who show up for class – keeping kids in the classroom is a top priority.
“If we could improve attendance by even 1 percent, that would bring a significant amount of money to the district,” said Jan Steed, director of student services for the Brentwood Union School District. “But it’s not just about the money. The fact is that we see kids struggling with reading, writing and math. How can we expect them to succeed if they are missing too much school? We want kids to be in school so they can learn and have all the opportunities available to them.”
Antioch schoolteacher and parent Lisa McBride agreed, but said the fantasy often differs from the reality: “I don’t know what the truancy rate is here (in the Antioch Unified School District) but I know it is high because the district keeps asking us to do more and more to encourage incentives for students to come to school. As a parent, my kids miss school for illness only, but sadly that is not always the case.”
Greg Hetrick, principal at Delta Vista Middle School in Oakley, sees truancy in his district as an ongoing concern. “We (Oakley Union Elementary School District) lose about $300,000 a year in absences,” said Hetrick. “Getting kids to school is something that we take for granted, and unfortunately in some households it’s the exception, not the rule.”
So far this year, Hetrick has conducted at least a dozen home visits – knocking on doors, rousting parents and children out of bed, and in some cases actually picking up and driving students to school.
“Sure, I’ve brought kids to school,” said Hetrick. “I had one student I called who had missed their ride to school, and mom was home but without a car, and public transportation had already left. So I said, ‘I’ll be there in 15 minutes’ and went and picked them up. Sometimes circumstances get in the way of attendance and we reach out to do what we can to help.”
Some, however, support a less kind and gentle approach to truancy. Take for example, Senate Bill 1317, which would make truancy a misdemeanor and allow parents to be fined and/or serve jail time if their child is a chronic absentee.
Under the California Education Code, a student missing more than 30 minutes of instruction without an excuse three times during the school year must be classified as a truant. SB 1317 takes it a step further and proposes that parents of children who miss more than 10 percent of the school year be fined up to $2,000 and/or serve as much as a year in prison.
Too severe? No, according to McBride. “I think truancy needs to hit the parent where it hurts,” she said. “I would support either jail time or the fine, and as a teacher I would also support it. At the elementary level it’s not the child’s choice whether or not they come to school. It’s the parent’s job, and they should be held responsible.”
But Steed hopes such measures would not become necessary. Steed also serves as the chairperson for the East County chapter of SARB (Student Attendance Review Board), a nationwide program that works to assist families in achieving prompt, consistent attendance. She believes that through outreach and positive communication with parents, truancy can be solved through less dramatic means.
“I’m always hesitant to be punitive,” said Steed. “And the goal of SARB is to provide intervention services to families, and it is successful. Sometimes it’s just a matter of providing transportation or buying someone an alarm clock. I had one little guy this year who wasn’t getting to school and mom worked and he lived too far away to walk, so the community was able to get together and buy him a bike. SARB is an opportunity to bring all our resources together, and really it is the last chance before it becomes a juvenile law problem.
Regardless, school officials and educators alike agree that getting students to school and keeping them in the classroom remains job one.
“Our goal is to have 97 percent attendance or better,” said Hetrick. “When kids are younger they are dying to get to school and then as they get older it becomes a little different. Going to school is a learned behavior and it’s our job to make sure the lesson gets taught.”