Nevada County schools aim to curb absenteeism with improved data, tracking (Interactive graphs) |

Nevada County schools aim to curb absenteeism with improved data, tracking (Interactive graphs)

For most students, the first step toward an education is through the classroom doors.

But in California, an alarming number of students aren’t making it to school on a regular basis.

More than one in five of the state’s elementary school students are truant, or have three unexcused absences of 30 minutes or more during the school year, and 8 percent of elementary school students are chronically absent, or miss at least 10 percent of the school year with excused or unexcused absences, according to a report released in September by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

And those absences are costly; according to the report, they cost the state’s school districts over $1 billion in funding in 2014-2015.

In Nevada County, 1,126 of the county’s 5,082 elementary school students, or 22 percent, were truant during the 2013-2014 school year, leading to a loss in funding of more than $529,000, according to the report.

Student attendance is a priority in county school districts, said Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen — but it’s something they’ve struggled to monitor over the past several years because they don’t have accurate data.

“I don’t think we really have a good idea of our truancy problem,” Hermansen said. “Is it mild or is it large or is it in the middle compared to other areas in the state? We don’t have a sense of it.”

That’s not a problem unique to Nevada County. California collects a lot of information about students in its California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, including student demographics, discipline, assessments and other data schools are required to submit for state and federal reporting.

But the state doesn’t track student attendance or chronic absenteeism.

The responsibility of tracking attendance generally falls to individual schools — and there’s a lot of disparity there, Hermansen said, because principals use different standards to judge what qualifies as an absence or a tardy.

“The principal has a lot of discretion,” Hermansen said.

There are some programs already in place in many districts within the county that are geared toward addressing attendance issues.

Several county schools are in the process of implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, to develop and positively reinforce behavior expectations and cut down on behavior problems that can take student out of class or send them home from school.

Hermansen also said her office is part of a truancy group made up of representation from different schools, as well as probation officers and family court judges that meets every couple of months to talk over attendance issues and try to come up with solutions to any problems early on in the process.

But while school officials may think their efforts are helping address truancy or absenteeism, without data, it’s not easy to assess how effective they are.

“It’s been really hard until now to know if anything that we’ve done has an impact,” Hermansen said.

However, it’s beginning to get easier, driven largely by the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, which requires school districts to develop a Local Control Accountability Plan that sets student priorities and describes how schools will meet those goals.

Starting last school year, districts across California are required to track chronic absenteeism, as well as attendance rates, as a metric of their LCAP.

Hermansen said school districts will use last year’s data as a baseline, and will compare it to the data they collect this year.

“I think once we have some good data, we’ll be able to come up with more supports and interventions,” Hermansen said. “We’ll know how this impacts what’s happening in the schools.”

It’s critical for districts and schools to develop those interventions, Hermansen said.

One area where the data isn’t fuzzy is around the long-term effects of truancy and chronic absence on academic success.

According to data cited in the attorney general’s report, chronic absences in elementary school can lead students to fall behind in academics, make them less likely to graduate high school and more likely to be unemployed or on public assistance in the future.

“Before you know it, you have a student who just gives up,” Hermansen said. “They don’t want to come to school because they’re so far behind. It adds up fast, and it’s significant.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email or call 530-477-4230.

(Interactive graphs below)

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