Torlakson putting new emphasis on chronic absenteeism

California schools chief Tom Torlakson has long felt chronic absenteeism, an often overlooked problem plaguing public education, is a fixable.

As part of his ongoing campaign to get districts to focus on the issue, Torlakson for the first time has made addressing excessive absences a key evaluation component of the state's annual recognition of model School Attendance Review Boards.

There's a very basic fact that is often overlooked: even the best teacher can't help students who don't make it to school," Torlakson said in a statement. "Just as a meteorologists save lives by sounding an early warning about hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, we need an early warning system for students who are chronically absent and whose academic career is in jeopardy."

The School Attendance Review Boards, or SARBs are required under state law to address significant violations of California's compulsory education laws. Typically organized with representatives from both school districts and law enforcement, as well as social services and, most recently, a mental health expert.

The role of the SARB is to create a safety net for students with persistent attendance or behavior problems in hopes of getting them back into school. SARBs do, however, have authority to refer students and their parents or guardians to the courts if violations persist.

The state, in conjunction with the California Association of Supervisors of Child Welfare and Attendance, has honored model SARB programs annually - including nine districts last year.

Often the focus of the review panel has been on truants - but the CDE is looking for districts that make chronic absenteeism a priority in this year's evaluation process.

Chronic absenteeism is generally defined as a student who misses 10 percent or more of the school year with or without a valid excuse.

Although there are no statewide numbers, a study released in May from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education suggests that as much as 15 percent of the nation's students qualify annually as chronically absent.

For California, that would mean some 900,000 students miss enough school to be at severe risk of dropping out or failing to graduate from high school.

The report found that chronic absenteeism is most prevalent among low-income students, with gender and ethnic backgrounds apparently not a factor.

The youngest and the oldest students tend to have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, with students attending most regularly in grades three through five. The absenteeism rates begin to rise in middle school and continue to climb through grade 12, with seniors often having the highest rate of all.

Analysis from Attendance Works, a non-profit based in San Francisco, found that chronic absences in kindergarten leads to lower achievement in reading and math in first grade.

The state's SARB recognition program provides for districts to nominate themselves, although supporting documents will be needed, including letters of support from outside agencies or individuals. Applications will be accepted through the middle of January with awards presented in April.

"This is really a product of the superintendent's campaign to increase awareness of chronic absenteeism," said David Kopperud, a consultant with the California Department of Education who helps oversee student attendance programs.

"We're really limited if we try to attack the problem of poverty or health care or some other big social issue - but chronic absenteeism is something we can monitor and respond to quickly," he said.

To learn more about the award or SARBs visit: more