Chronic absenteeism in Oakland schools

Last school year, 14.3 percent of Oakland’s public schoolchildren were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 18 days of school — excused or unexcused. As you can see from this map, created by (and posted with the permission of) the Oakland-based Urban Strategies Council, the most serious attendance problems are concentrated in West Oakland.

The Oakland school district recently began collecting data of all of its students who were absent — not just those with unexcused absences. Now, principals regularly get lists of those students (those who have missed 10 percent of the school year) in an effort to get to the root causes of their absence and curb the problem.

Superintendent Tony Smith is scheduled to speak in Sacramento tomorrow at a forum on the subject hosted by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson. So is Hedy Chang, of Attendance Works, who did the attendance analysis for the Oakland school district with technical support from Urban Strategies Council.

As we discussed last summer on this blog, the problem of chronic absenteeism is not just prevalent in high schools, but in elementary schools as well.

In an interview today, Chang cited many factors that could lead to high absenteeism, many of which affect children in poverty disproportionately: foreclosure and housing instability; health problems, access to transportation, and violence. But she also said missing school tends to do much greater harm to poor children, who rely on school to learn how to read.

Chronic absenteeism in sixth-grade, she said, is a strong predictor of whether a student will drop out of school.

Chang thinks more districts should look at student absenteeism, not just truancy (unexcused absences) and overall school attendance. “You can have a kid in kindergarten rack up a ton of excused absences, but they’re missing a lot of school,” she said.

Do you agree?

Here is the presentation Chang gave to Mayor Jean Quan’s education cabinet last month:
absentee presentation

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Teacher too

    In an analysis done last year at my school, well over 95 percent of the 8th graders who did not have above a 2.0 average were chronically absent. If we paid as much attention to attendance throughout the year as we do during “testing”, we would have better outcomes on multiple measures.
    How? Some ideas are: start by following district policy on absenteeism as if kids lives depended on it (they do). Add in a healthy dose of human contact in the first weeks of school from teachers/administrators/staff/volunteers for every student who starts to show a pattern of regular absence and tardiness by having caring people make phone calls, set up home visits, send texts, etc. Make literal and figurative wake up calls. Reward incremental improvement. Get kids and parents educated about the personal cost of absenteeism early and often.

  • Katy Murphy

    Teacher Too: It does seem like such an investment might pay off. I talked to Adam Taylor from Brookfield Elementary in East Oakland, which has apparently reduced its chronic absenteeism in the last couple of years from 20 percent of its students to 6 percent.

    Taylor said he borrowed ideas from other schools — popcorn parties on Fridays for the class with the best attendance, and a bicycle raffle at the end of the year for children with perfect attendance. His school brings in all kinds of mentors and volunteers to read to the kids, another incentive for them to show up, and meets with families of chronically absent kids to get to the root cause of their poor attendance. (One kid, who used to wander the halls after getting dropped off at school, now gets a personal welcome each morning.)

    Brookfield has an outreach coordinator that does a lot of this work; other schools would have to do it differently. Taylor also noted that it takes time and effort to acquire the bicycle prizes, and that it would be helpful if a company supported the initiative, Oakland-wide, by providing raffle prizes or other incentives to each school.

    On another note: Am I reading the second map wrong, or does Santa Fe Elementary look out of place? I wonder if that big yellow dot is supposed to represent another school.

  • Nextset

    The problem I see in the above posts is that these truant 8th graders will not have employers kiss their rears to beg them to come to work on time. It’s wrong to expect the schools to start that conditioning.

    I believe the traditional approach is to remove non-compliant students to continuation or alternative schools.

    That way they don’t contaminate the good students.

    I understand that some children come from trash and some children have bad homes that create enough chaos so you just cannot expect them to ever be where they need to be on time. Some kids have medical problems – or their mothers do. That’s why we have alternative schooling. Those children should be sent there for alternative education.

    Continuing to try to cram these troubled kids (it doesn’t matter why they are troubled, you take the students as you find them) into normal schools is why our standard OUSD schools have the problems they do. Segregate these problem children into alternative ed.

  • Katy Murphy

    What about elementary school kids? Brookfield, the example I gave, only goes up to grade 5. Chronic absenteeism is high in kindergarten, the year many kids start learning to read.

  • Bones

    Improving attendance should be the #1 priority for OUSD right now.

    It’s uncontroversial, it’s extremely important, and it is directly tied to the district’s revenue.

  • Nextset

    You would expect the more severe absentee policy as the children get older.

    I think the primary schools should deal with the issue as the principal thinks best. The district should support the local administration. The sorting of the students by deportment and aptitude needs to be well underway by high school in order to get the (majority of the?) students ready for industry, military and higher education by age 18. The babying of the kids after puberty – especially the black kids – is my real problem. They’re not going to wear very well if they are babied as older students.

    In the primary schools there are families whose products are not suitable for normal schools for a variety of reasons, medical, cultural or other special needs. Some of those special needs express themselves in extraordinary truancy. When the principal decides to transfer the student to special ed programs I’d support the principal. If the family asks for special help or a transfer to a program, that’s fine. Homeschooling is also an option for some. Whatever the district can cobble together to do the job. I have a close associate whose child has been in a high control county school since before puberty. They regularly take children to the ground – they have a serious staff component of men (aides?) built like linebackers. I’ve visited the place on occasion. I’ve seen some of the other parents. When the kids are at that school the parents really don’t have to worry about them getting run over in the street (or breaking into houses). Everybody is kept busy and they all seem happy enough but there is a rubber room somewhere on campus (maybe that’s an urban legend?). I have a friend teaching in such a school in the bay area.

    So I can see that some school districts do have a nice variety of programs for the special needs.

    But if the child is not working out in a given (standard) school and the instructors/principal needs them reassigned, I’d support that decision. I’d also have a free flow of information to CPS and the Police as required to see to the child’s safety and well being. I have some experience with child attendance and behavior being impacted by criminal neglect and abuse going on in the home. I would support the local principals when they must be very blunt and curt with the mothers about the school’s knowledge and belief of what’s going on at home and what steps the schools will take against her if she doesn’t change her ways and get the child properly dressed, bathed and delivered on time. Maybe that’s a hollow threat in Oakland, I don’t know. If the mother is already on criminal probation for something the school can use her probation officer against her also. Whatever the principal has to do to see to the child.

    What really gets me is when the schools give up, at least give up on certain people, and stop trying. Especially at a standard school where everybody can see that you just don’t bother about some people. You have to keep fighting and you have to make yourself (as a principal) obnoxious to keep the problem people from settling in as the new normal, otherwise the whole place starts slacking.

    Children sometimes come from homes with no parents, parents who are addicts, parents who are in and out of jail. Sometimes the primary school kids themselves have serious medical problems that interfere with attendance. It’s up to the schools to match the child with the program and we should not have kids in programs where they are highly likely to fail – especially where there are reasonable alternative programs. I’d like to see real efforts to get problem children out of the standard schools and into more suitable programs where they are expected to fit in and make progress in their education plan.

    The chronic truants are probably in the wrong schools for them. The miss-match is itself likely part of the reason for the truancy.

    AS PS about the high control schools – for various reasons the student likes his school and they like him. He is happy and productive there for years now. He’s not bored and never frustrated with the academics. It is a very good match. There are smaller classes and a higher student/staff ratio. There are lots of men on staff – a higher ratio than I seem to see in normal schools. The risk factors/history of this child are dangerous – explosive disorder (weapons, etc) – history of psychosis, mood disorders and other severe problems. You would never suspect it in looking at the student on a typical day. They make it work. The family can go to work and not worry during the workday. Somebody could have been dead if they’d have been forced to stay with a standard school. As a primary student there were huge truancy problems. Those problems got more dangerous with puberty.

    Transferring the problem children to suitable schools and programs is an important part of fixing this problem.

  • Cranky Teacher

    I think most people think absenteeism is about students playing hooky, which of course is some of the problem. But when I investigate chronic truants, I so often find it leads directly to the parents. Here are various scenarios I have encountered:

    — Parents who make students take care of sick siblings, cousins or elders.
    — Parents who are mentally ill and/or disabled who keep children out of school as caretakers or hostages.
    — Stays in juvenile custody.
    — Parents taking long “vacations”. The most common is the winter trips to Latin America, but I have had kids go to Vegas for weeks and the like.

    Another surprising (to me) wrench a lot of our parents throw into their kids’ education is an emphasis on religion over academics. I have several students who spend almost every evening in revivalist churches. No wonder they are tired and do no homework. Similarly, many immigrant students are forced to work in family business for 20-40 hours a week.

    Nextset has some good points about kids allowed to rot in schools, learning little and failing everything. However, continuation schools are not set up to handle mass numbers of students — they are by design more expensive to run because of lower student-teacher ratios.

    High schools in Oakland are told to send only a few kids per semester to continuation schools, as they are all full.

    The trick would be to fund schools enough to make aggressive home and academic interventions feasible and mandatory for far more kids than just those officially labeled as “special ed.” The money isn’t the only essential, but it is one.

  • Debora

    In the business world I hired Oakland graduates. The same people who were chronic truants (as I later found out) were absent from work for the same reasons “Cranky Teacher” sited. Only it got worse when they got older because the older siblings attended every hospital visit when younger siblings were in shootings or accidents in stolen cars. They went to bail hearings, probation meetings (school and police) and parole hearings. The same adults often had one or more children, none were married to the fathers of their children, nor were those fathers active parents. So the women were also responsible for staying home with sick children.

    I have been told by many teachers that “if you get them to school fed I will teach them.” I believe this is true.

    I am not opposed withholding monetary aid payments from parents who do not get their children to school on time, fed (or in time for breakfast at school) and well-rested. I believe that parents who ask society to help provide a safety net have the responsibility for living within the rules of the society providing the safety net.

  • Oakland Teacher


    Even as a die-hard liberal, I have to admit that I find your idea of tying aide to attendance an interesting one. I have seen elementary age kids (so obviously a function of adult responsibility) not ever get their child to school on time for free breakfast, have 20%+ absenteeism, and the kids never ready for school that day. I think the well-rested part would be a little too subjective, but the attendance should be easy enough to track and submit electronically. It is very painful to watch children miss so much school. I have seen kids dropped for lack of attendance, but the reality is that those kids are still out there somewhere, not going to school anywhere.

  • Nextset

    I found Cranky’s post to be really on point.

    One of the things I’ve dealt with in talking to the kiddies – for example in “Career Day” visits (and it’s been awhile) – is explaining to them the notion that if you really intend to be a professional you have to make your mind up by high school to lose your loser friends – and relatives. That means you stop caring so much about them if you want to see it that way. You don’t get into their drama, you don’t enable them. You don’t worry about them so much and worry primarily about yourself and your needs and goals. You understand that a committment to going to law school, med school, vet school, nursing school, police academy, Eagle Scouting or whatever else is to be made clear to everybody and that you are not available for the games and drama of these other people. If you can’t do that you need to reevaluate your “dreams” and pick something else that is more compatible with the drama – like entertainment.

    The students often tell me no one else has ever told them that, thet they were led to believe they had some kind of obligation to continuously associate and participate with the lifestyle issues of various relatives and friends.

    Perhaps it’s time the schools made it clear that Childhood’s Over and the students either get cracking on their own list of requirements and priorities or just decide to be like the rest of their friends and family. They need to be told that part of “wanting to be” includes cutting off incompatible associations and activities and you might as well do it openly.

    So no, you don’t have to go to court with some criminal relative. No you don’t have to go to a party with so and so. And yes, you ae going to start spending social time with others in the same track not lesser tracks. That’s how this works. It’s easier when the school tracks into different class schedules and campuses (it creates a “society” of like for the students to beling to). Doing so would support first generation college or military bound.

    The “birds of a feather” and “crab pot” thing really needs explaining, especially to the minority youth.

    Cranky also hit another point. The “Black” Church is toxic to social mobility. It is to be discouraged as far as I’m concerned. By that, I mean the kiddies need to be made to understand what the issues and differences are between the major religious groups from the Catholics to the Mormons to the Protestants (love that Protestant Work Ethic) to the Baptists and to the various cults. Comparative Religion class and every other cultural anthropology class are very useful – especially to minorities (tend to be more) who are sheltered and xenophobic. There are books written about the economic history of the various groups explaining how their value systems contributed to their poverty or wealth. Knowledge is power. The kiddies need the power.

    There’s a reason why some people go up and some people go down and it sure isn’t discrimination which plays little role in economic mobility. That needs to be taught – or at least made clear there are two side to that debate.

    As I’ve said before – absenteeism can be a reflection of the low regard the particular education program is held by it’s students and can be an accurate apprasial of the worth of the program. They vote with their feet. The schools shouldn’t be so smug that they are in the right and the students who stay away are wrong. If the educational program had real perceived value you wouldn’t have the absenteeism. I say that when the students stay away they are (likely) in the wrong program for them. Refusal to terminate/transfer the student for chronic absenteeism is further evidence of a bad school and a fundamental missmatching of student and program.

    Brave New World