A quarter of San Francisco public school students were chronically absent last year. What can be done? | New
The San Francisco Board of Education is expected to unveil a plan in October to boost literacy rates, math scores, and college and career readiness.
But there is an obstacle to achieving the new goals. More than 25% of San Francisco Unified School District students were chronically absent in 2021-22, the first full year of in-person learning since the pandemic began.
While SFUSD is not alone in this phenomenon – 72% of public schools experienced an increase in chronic student and teacher absenteeism in the 2021-22 school year – the district’s double increase to 24, 8% is well above the national average of 17%.
“We know that over the past few years, managing the impacts of the pandemic has been incredibly difficult for students and families,” said Jenny Lam, president of the San Francisco Board of Education. “Students missing a lot of time from school are alarm bells – we need to understand the factors and how to provide students with the supports and receive the care they need to learn and succeed.”
A student is considered chronically absent if they miss more than 10% — or 18 days — of the school year, excused or not.
The term was coined in 2010 by education consultant Hedy Chang who found that students missing more than 10 days of school in kindergarten are less likely to read at grade level in third grade, less likely to do well at grade level in middle school and more likely to drop out in high school. Shortly thereafter, she founded Attendance Works, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that focuses on improving attendance practices and policies at all levels of governance.
In San Francisco public schools, one of the biggest increases can be seen among transitioning kindergarten students, 50% of whom were chronically absent last school year compared to 20% in 2020-21 — perhaps because students under the age of 5 were not eligible to be vaccinated until last June.
The other significant increase occurred among the two-thirds of African American, Pacific Islander, and adoptive students and half of Latino students who were chronically absent in 2021-22. This is a significant increase from 2020-21, the year most disrupted by the pandemic – when 45% of African American students, 47% of Pacific Islander students, 46% of adoptive students and 25 % of Latino students were chronically absent.
Even before the pandemic, however, students from these ethnic groups experienced higher levels of chronic absenteeism in San Francisco and across the country, according to education researchers.
“Many of the things that we know are causes or at least strongly associated with chronic absenteeism are unfortunately disproportionately present for students of color,” said Ethan Hutt, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at the Chapel Hill School of Education. “When we talk about schools that have a high prevalence of chronic absenteeism, we want to sort out the things that are within their control and the things that are not within their control.”
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on historically underserved communities has exacerbated these factors, said Cecelia Leong, vice president of programs at Attendance Works.
She pointed to a Wayne State study chronicling Detroit families’ experiences with COVID-19 and school attendance that found students whose families faced greater economic hardship during the pandemic were more likely to be chronically absent.
“There were significant socio-economic differences between moderately and severely chronically absent students, which reinforces that reducing chronic absenteeism will require social and economic supports beyond what schools alone can provide” , says the study.
The impacts of absenteeism
According to Hutt, whose research at UNC focuses on metrics used to quantify academic performance, the oldest measure is attendance. He noted that while a school’s quality was once determined by its average daily attendance — or the percentage of enrolled students who came to school daily — the reality is that attendance has long been an ambiguous measure.
“School districts almost immediately realized that these numbers were easily manipulated,” Hutt said. “It is very difficult to verify who is in the building and so the districts will engage in all sorts of shenanigans to keep their numbers looking good.”
If students missed consecutive days, for example, districts would drop students and re-enroll them upon their return so their absence would not be counted in the final metric.
This happened as recently as 2017, when a high school in Washington, DC graduated all of its diplomas despite a majority missing more than six weeks of school. Some could not even read or write.
Michael Gottfried, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, found that chronic absence has four distinct impacts on students, their classmates, and their school.
The first concerns school finances, since California schools receive state funding based on the number of students who show up each day.
Like Chang, Gottfried found that chronic absenteeism negatively impacts literacy and math scores. However, absences tend to have a greater impact on math than on reading, because although parents read to their children at home, they do not feel as equipped to teach math.
Chronic absence has also been found to impact child development; those who are absent are often less engaged in the classroom and do not want to be there, causing further absences and a cycle of reinforcement.
Finally, Gottfried discovered that his classmates are also affected. For example, if a student has missed a few days of school, the teacher may slow down to catch up, which affects the learning of the rest of the class. On the other hand, if the teacher does not slow down, the student may become confused and disengage from the lesson. Either way, learning is impaired.
Absenteeism imposed by the pandemic
In studying the factors that contribute to absenteeism, Gottfried established four distinct factors: routines, transitions, engagement and health. Seeing a two-fold increase in chronic absenteeism after the pandemic, Gottfried said the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have disrupted all four drivers.
Routines are all about practice, Gottfried said, and while many don’t practice, there are students in kindergarten through third grade who have never practiced school before. Similarly, many have transitioned from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school online.
“The middle schoolers missed out on this whole huge developmental element of preteen development,” Gottfried said. “They haven’t been able to have those moments in school that are super engaging, whether it’s making those connections with the teachers or the curriculum or with their peers.”
Besides the obstacles students face in school, some may not even want to return because of concerns about COVID-19, which Attendance Works’ Leong said schools need to address.
“There’s been so much trauma and anxiety and stress from the pandemic that part of the normal transition almost has to be increased, so you’re really dealing with some of the anxiety and the fear of leaving. home or being exposed to COVID,” Leong said. .
The SFUSD approach
In addition to an ongoing joint research project examining chronic absenteeism at SFUSD with UC Berkeley, the San Francisco public school district offers comprehensive services to help student attendance, said public relations manager Laura Dudnick. from SFUSD.
Once a student has suffered six unjustified absences, School Coordinated Care Teams are supposed to contact the family and schedule a meeting. Based on this meeting, support plans are created, Dudnick said. When a family cannot be reached, the matter is escalated to the district-level Absenteeism Coordinated Care Team, who tries to find other ways to support the family.
Individual schools also have their own methods of promoting attendance. In fact, most Independence High School students enroll because they have struggled with chronic truancy.
True to its name, Independence offers an independent study program where students create their own schedules and attend small classes with up to 15 students. The school also offers a special education program for students with moderate to severe anxiety, depression, school phobia, and school avoidance.
“Some of the children we take in haven’t set foot in their school for six months or more,” said principal Anna Klafter. “We’re starting from a really tough place with some of our kids and working to get them into school, but also to get them to a place where they can be successful after school and find something meaningful. for them.”
Independence has hired an additional social worker to focus on chronically absent students who may be involved in the juvenile justice system, foster care, are between homes, or face other situations that interfere with school attendance. .
“Adding this position…really upset the results for our Level 3 students,” Klafter said. “She is able to manage 25 children and truly be their go-to person for everything from academics and school supplies to food, housing and family needs, and has just been a real lifeline to students and families.”
Since the program began in 2019 and the additional social worker in 2020, graduation rates at Independence have risen from 54% to 91%, according to Klafter.
While these solutions are specific to Independence High School, Gottfried and Hutt said research shows that when high school students are taught by a teacher of the same ethnicity, attendance rates tend to increase. Serving breakfast in the classroom and placing students with disabilities in general rather than special education classes has also been shown to increase attendance.
Hutt added that communicating with parents about the impacts of absenteeism can serve as an additional solution.
“It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about new standards or better quality teachers. If students are not there to reap the benefits of what is happening in schools, then why talk about anything else,” Gottfried said. “It’s almost like absenteeism/attendance is the first step in trying to create educational opportunities.”
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