State looks to distribute big absenteeism grant this year

State looks to distribute big absenteeism grant this year

A prior version of this story incorrectly reported that the required local match is 25 percent; it is 20 percent.

(Calif.) State officials charged with allocating $29 million in grant money aimed largely at reducing chronic absenteeism are hopeful about getting most of that money awarded this fiscal year with an application process starting perhaps in March.

The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, created partly in budget negotiations and legislative action last summer, will provide three-year grants to help districts employ early intervention and evidence-based attendance strategies to address attendance issues as well as student suspensions.

“I believe the Legislature is really interested in changing the trajectory of students that might fall into the school to prison pipeline,” said Gordon Jackson, director of the Coordinated Student Support Division at the California Department of Education. “That’s why there’s so much interest in this on the part of so many stakeholders.”

Most of the funding–$18 million–was put into the 2016-17 budget by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders with an additional $9 million established as part of a voter-approved initiative that reduced penalties and incarceration costs for some non-violent and non-serious drug and property crimes. The money coming out of budget talks is considered a one-time contribution, while the prison-related savings will be on-going.

There is also a requirement that LEAs awarded grants find a 20 percent matching share.

Jackson noted that in the first round of funding, part of the decision about which LEAs will be awarded grants will depend on how well they can show that they can keep their programs going into the future.

“I think it would be very unfortunate if we gear up to address the needs and then three years from now at the end of the grant period for the first set of LEAs receiving grants there is nothing left over to suggest these grant programs ever happened,” he said. “So we are looking for sustainable capacity.”

While the focus of the program is truancy and absenteeism, the Legislature gave fairly broad direction to the CDE to consider grant proposals from districts with programs aimed at students at risk of dropping out of school or who are victims of crime.

There is also reference in the enabling legislation that the use of the grant money be “consistent” with a district’s local control accountability plan as it relates to pupil engagement and school climate. Because the statute didn’t further define what “consistent” means, the CDE will be forced to interpret lawmaker intent.

The rub here is that the LCAPs define spending decisions and performance goals that target three student groups–those from low-income families, English learners and foster youth. Meanwhile, the new Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund is potentially focused on a wider group of students.

Jackson said there is likely to be a lot of overlap between the two sets of student subgroups–but they are distinct.

“If you had a student whose needs weren’t readily addressed by the expectations expressed in the LCAP and was repeatedly suspended, had poor attendance and was becoming a focal point of the school because of that behavior–that student would be very much connected to the work,” he said.

The CDE held a stakeholder meeting late last month, inviting a wide cross-section of participants including non-profits, parents and legislative staffers. Jackson said he wants to try to finish building a draft application document by the beginning of January and if all goes well with internal review, the final version could be ready sometime in March.