Sept. 23, 2015

C.L.A.S.S. Act — Attendance Matters

By Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools and
Joyce Dudley, District Attorney, County of Santa Barbara

California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s 2015 report on truancy and absenteeism, In School + On Track, states that 83% of students chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are unable to read on-level by third grade. Even more staggering, the report adds, is the fact that students who cannot read on-level in third grade are 400% more likely to drop out than kids who can.

This September marks the third annual School Attendance Awareness Month campaign. Its goal is to remind educational communities, advocates, policymakers, and families about the importance of attendance and its role in academic achievement.

The Attorney General estimates that nearly 8% of elementary school students in California are chronically absent. Nearly a quarter million California school children are currently at risk of falling seriously behind in their studies.

All In. The good news is chronic absence and truancy are problems we are tackling head-on here in Santa Barbara County.

Local efforts to fight chronic absenteeism date back to the late 1990s, when the district attorney’s office, in conjunction with several county school districts and other county departments, instituted the Truancy Intervention and Parent Accountability Program (TIPAP).

The program had a successful 11-year run, but in 2008, TIPAP was eliminated due to budget cuts. The ensuing effect on truancy—defined as a student having three or more unexcused absences—was as unfortunate as it was predictable: a jump from 21% in 2008 to 31% in 2009.

It was the dramatic jump in truancy rates, coupled with the knowledge that those rates can lead to dimmer prospects for students’ futures, that led to the 2011 Grand Jury Report, “Where is the Truancy Program in Santa Barbara County?”

The reality is that poor attendance track records bode poorly for students’ futures and their ability to be contributing citizens. According to studies, 70% of prison inmates are high school dropouts. A 2012 PBS Frontline documentary offers additional troubling facts: over 30% of 18- to 24-year old high school dropouts live in poverty. And 16- to 24-year old high school dropouts experience incarceration rates 63 times greater than those of college graduates.

The Grand Jury report was a watershed moment. That jump in truancy rates from 21% to 31% in a single school year was a clarion call for us as a community to do something.

And that’s precisely what happened.

The Board of Supervisors asked us what we needed. Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Steve Lavagnino in particular provided both strong advocacy and leadership. We put together a budget proposal of about 1/3 the cost of the previous program, with the understanding that this incarnation needed very broad buy-in from local school districts and other government and community organizations.

Faced with the statistics, the buy-in came rather readily. Assistant Chief District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss tells people, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” It’s an effective pitch, because it’s true. School districts, the sheriff’s office, probation officers, and other community organizations were all in.

Numbers Don’t Lie. While the numbers that inspired the initial Grand Jury report were deeply troubling, the data chronicling the success of the newly-revamped program is considerably more heartening. “For three years running,” says Deputy District Attorney Adam Howland, “Santa Barbara County truancy rates have been significantly below the state average.” The numbers for the 2013-14 school year—the most recent available data—are the lowest registered in Santa Barbara County in six years.

But the real success is captured in the data behind the Community Leadership in Achieving Student Success (CLASS) Program. “We sent over 18,000 letters last year to students throughout Santa Barbara County the first time they were truant,” says Truancy Program Coordinator Corina Trevino. “Of that number, less than 2% had to be referred to a school attendance review board, or SARB.” A SARB is convened when a student has 14 or more days of unexcused absences.

Even more impressive, however, is the community intervention efforts that address the issues of that 2%. “We had 342 students meet a SARB last year,” says Howland. “But the SARB recognizes that a student’s failure to go to school is usually symptomatic of other issues. We take the approach that this program is about fostering student success—even in challenging circumstances—and not about merely enforcing compulsory educational laws. Of those 342 students we met,” he concludes, “only 10 were placed on informal probation. Those are astonishing results.”

Indeed they are. It is precisely for this reason that Attorney General Kamala Harris has commended the Santa Barbara County program as an example for the entire state as to how to achieve the goal of returning students to school without necessitating criminal intervention.

Now that’s a CLASS act. Attendance truly does work.