Santa Clara County cracks down on student absenteeism
Members of Leland High School's 4K dance team practice their moves. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

More than 25,000 Santa Clara County students are chronically absent from school each year. Elected officials want to change that.

The county Board of Supervisors this week voted unanimously to create a plan and funding options to address the issue. County leaders hope that contracts and a work plan are ironed out for the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Suggestions to combat chronically absent students include expanding student and family counseling, education on the importance of school attendance for parents, incentives for students and case management to address individual and family needs.

Chronic absenteeism includes both excused and unexcused absences that total 18 school days, or about 10% of the school year.

Santa Clara County’s chronic absentee rate is below the state’s rate of 12% of students in 2018-2019, the last full school year before the pandemic. But numbers are much higher for certain groups—for example, 75% of chronically absent students in Santa Clara County come from families considered low income.

According to county documents, chronically absent preschool, kindergarten and first grade students “are more likely to be unable to read on-level by third grade.” And if a student is unable to read at their level by third grade, they are four times more likely to not finish high school.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated inequities in our community,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez. “As a result, the data is showing many youths are experiencing social isolation, anxiety and trauma. It’s anticipated this will impact students returning to school campuses and we may observe a lack of engagement… (and) decreased achievement.”

The board’s plan directs county officials to find any and all possible funding sources to address the problem, including Mental Health Services Act funds, state and federal recovery funds, Medi-Cal and possibly the county’s own general fund.

The recommendations to address student attendance come from a county “Chronic Absenteeism Workgroup,” formed in February 2020, whose members include the Santa Clara County Superior Court, Santa Clara County Office of Education, East Side Union High School District, the Office of the District Attorney, Behavioral Health Services Department and multiple nonprofit partners.

The group’s recommendations are founded on the principle that solutions to this countywide issue should be child- and family-centered.

“I think we know this issue of chronic absenteeism is highly concentrated in some schools and some districts and the focus of our energy and resources there (makes sense),” said Supervisor Joe Simitian. “The concern I have… (is that) whether there are five or 50 kids and families at a particular school with chronic absenteeism, for each one of those kids individually, the issue is just important to them and their lives, without regard to how many (students) are at the school.”

Meanwhile, Board President Mike Wasserman said the funding burden for these efforts “should fall on the schools, not the county.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg emphasized that efforts to address absenteeism reduce the involvement of the courts in truancy cases. In 2017, the county district attorney’s office stopped prosecuting and filing cases on youth for truancy offenses.

According to county documents, however, schools with a “great majority of students missing class who are not involved in the juvenile justice system” tend to have behavioral/mental health problems or substance abuse issues.

“School districts as well as the (district attorney’s office) are not prepared to address these issues,” reads a report to supervisors. “The current services are not enough, especially with the increased needs following the pandemic. Students who are either chronically absent or are at high-risk for becoming chronically absent and dropping out of school need resources and guidance to re-enroll in many cases and get a proper specialized plan for study.”

According to the California school dashboard, chronic absentee rates differ widely across the county’s school districts. San Jose Unified’s cumulative absentee rate is 9.8%, while Alum Rock Union Elementary School District’s absentee rate is 14%. Berryessa Union School District’s rate is about 5.8% — some of those differences between districts may be explained by higher on average chronic absentee rates for high school students compared to any other grade level.

Educators reminded the board that there are a variety of circumstances that lead to a child not showing up to school.

“Foster and homeless youth were struggling to attend school regularly prior to the pandemic,” said Mary Ann Dewan, superintendent of schools in Santa Clara County. “We’ve seen an increase of the percentage of families who are at risk of housing instability and many at imminent risk of losing housing once the eviction moratorium is lifted. There are many unknowns as to the impact of the pandemic and shelter in place.”

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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