The Importance of Attendance…For Everyone!

As Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell included in her back-to-school welcome message, attendance is super important. Inspired by her call for building positive attendance habits early in our young learners and since September was Attendance Awareness Month, I decided to dive deeper into the topic, specifically chronic absence, to help give context on why it matters so much – for everyone!

What is Chronic Absence?

Chronic absence is another way of looking at attendance by focusing on proportion of kids who missed a significant amount of school days, those who are chronically absent. For the first time, the state has defined how it will collect and calculate chronic absenteeism (see footnote for definition). This data is one of several indicators in the California School Dashboard that attempts to reflect school culture and climate and build toward a more holistic view of school performance.

In 2016-17 (the first year data was collected), Oakland’s citywide overall chronic absenteeism rate was 15.4% of students – that’s over 1 in 7 children across district and charter schools who miss 10% or more of their school days. For comparison, the statewide average is 10.8% of students in 2016-17 and recent analysis by AttendanceWorks puts the nationwide rate at 15.5% during 2015-16 (though they define chronic absence slightly different).

Why it matters:

  • For System Leaders: Because a lot of school funding in California is based on “average daily attendance” (ADA), not enrollment, a school loses approximately $85 per day for every student absent. This can add up quickly! For a district or charter with scarce resources and tight budgets (aka almost every school in Oakland), this feels important. To get an estimate of the potential minimum dollars lost, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. (Assuming 10% of school year = 18 days, 15.4% of Oakland’s 53089 students were chronically absent during attendance tracking period, and $15,337 per pupil funding annually in CA in 2016-17). That adds up to a potential loss of at least $12.6 million citywide! (Some students were absent a lot more than 18 days a year.)

18 days x(15.4% students chronically absent x 53089 students) x $15337 per pupil/180 days per year = $12.6M

  • For Students: Students who are behind and chronically absent are missing valuable instruction time – time that is necessary for closing the proficiency gap. When there are huge differences between subgroups, it becomes equitable access issue. To estimate the impact for socioeconomically disadvantaged students (SED), I made assumptions that: the 41.6K SED students citywide receive 6.5 instructional hours per day, attend school 180 days a year, chronically absent students miss at least 18 days (10%) of year, and used the citywide rate of 17.4%. That’s 849K total instructional hours lost in 2016-17. Every 1% citywide reduction in % of SED students who are chronically absent yields 49K extra instructional hours to work on closing the gap! Imagine all the reading or math that can happen in that time!

Chronic absenteeism rates citywide in Oakland by subgroup (CDE 2016-17)

  • For School Leaders: Attendance and chronic absenteeism rates can be leading indicators for a healthy school culture. Chronic absence is an early warning sign of academic distress, including school dropout (Oakland Achieves 2016). Unusual rates are symptomatic of other underlying issues and thus should be monitored carefully, acting as bellwethers for a healthy school culture. Some schools like Frick, MLA, and Hoover have been steadily reducing their chronic absence rates, showing consistent improvement not only in the past three years but also historically. They’re also schools with targeted and sustained climate and culture efforts from the school leaders.

Areas of Caution:

  • Focus on chronic absence rates beyond just the numbers. There are so many the factors that contribute to students’ chronic absenteeism, a variety inside and out of a family’s control. Health, transportation, family trauma, reactions to the national political climate – all this and more in Oakland. It’s necessary to understand the “whys” behind high rates and know each school site is different.
  • Metric not designed to capture change for individual students: Even if a school helps a student reduce the number of missed school days from 60 days annually down to 20, the student would still be considered chronically absent in both years because they’ve crossed the 10% threshold.
  • Differing definitions: The California Department of Education definition for chronic absence differs slightly than the federal definition (10% of school days vs. 15 days per school year). Chronic absence is calculated differently at continuation and alternative schools.

Snapshot of OUSD on the interactive map from The Hamilton Project, which displays federally collected chronic absence rates from 2015-16 on national, state, district, and school levels using the federal definition of 15+ days for chronic absence.

  • Reporting errors in first year: Not surprisingly, the first year of data collection for chronic absenteeism rates had its hiccups and inaccuracies as folks acclimated. Sites with flagged inaccuracies will have a banner to note this. See OUSD’s page for chronic absenteeism rates for example. (As a point of comparison: if you look at San Francisco’s, it’s much more wildly inaccurate.) Hopefully, data for 2017-18 will be more robust and accurate now that schools and districts have had time to adjust with first round of collection under their belts.

Looking forward:

I’m super excited (not surprisingly) about the possibility of updated 2017-18 chronic absence data in CA School Dashboard refresh (update scheduled late winter/early spring). In theory, chronic absence rates could be leading indicators, a bellwether to making sure students are getting the instructional hours they need, and we would have insight into how Oakland schools are progressing compared to statewide benchmark.

For those interested in learning more about chronic absence and ways to address it, I recommend checking out AttendanceWorks, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing chronic absence to advance student success, or OUSD’s Attendance webpage. Data geeks will appreciate the interactive map recently released by AttendanceWorks and The Hamilton Project at Brookings Institution on 2015-16 federal chronic absence data, allowing users to dig deeper into subgroup trends.

Footnotes: Definition: The California Ed Code defines a student as a chronic absentee if ”a pupil who is absent on 10 percent or more of the school days in the school year when the total number of days a pupil is absent is divided by the total number of days the pupil is enrolled and school was actually taught in the regular day schools of the district, exclusive of Saturdays and Sundays.”

The Eclipse, Alignment, and Hope

Last Monday, as our sun was being eclipsed by our moon, another sun was born: OUSD opened a brand new dual-language immersion middle school called Oakland School of Language, shortened to Oakland SOL. (“Sol” is Spanish for “sun.”)

Being at OSOL on its first day was inspiring. Unlike our cloud-obscured and fleeting view of the eclipse, OSOL provides a vivid picture of what is possible in public education. Specifically, OSOL’s opening shows the power of alignment – when individuals, organizations, systems, and community come together. I’d love to see the Oakland public education community embrace this lesson from OSOL as we face the challenges ahead this school year.

For the students, community, parents, and educators who were part of the OSOL design team, last Monday was a triumph– the realization of three years of dreaming, hard work, late nights, overcoming setbacks, and belief in what is possible when a community works together. On opening day, two parents – Yessenia Copado and Che Abram – spoke eloquently (one in Spanish, one in English) about why they chose to be part of the school design team and how they felt, now that the school was open. Their words reminded me of my own life-changing experiences opening schools. It also made me want to hug every one of them and tell them that the sacrifices were worth it.

I also wanted to remind them that there is still a lot of work to be done– because getting to opening day is only the beginning. Lots of research reveals that the launch year of a new school is critical in determining its long-term success. The OSOL team has years of continued hard work ahead, designing and redesigning different aspects of the school to create a healthy climate, a robust and well-rounded education program, and operational systems that run smoothly, with student needs front and center.

Fortunately, OSOL has many assets already aligned: a visionary leader, a talented team, a strong and growing base of families, support from local partners like Oakland Community Organizations[1], and district leadership that is aware of the need to embrace innovation (even when it struggles to do so).

New Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and Board president James Harris both visited on the school’s first day. I hope that seeing OSOL inspired more ideas for what can happen when the District listens to parents, empowers a talented school leader, and invests in the future. I also hope that the District can modernize its back-end systems like hiring, budgeting, and enrollment to support this unique school and all district schools going forward.

I know that some are wondering why OUSD would open a new school when the district is in financial distress and already has so many (maybe even too many) schools. It’s a valid concern, heightened with last week’s release of a report on OUSD’s poor fiscal health by the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT). We’ll address this question in an upcoming #OUSDBudget post. But the short answer is simple: Oakland does NOT have enough quality schools. If we seek to increase enrollment to restore financial vitality, then we must provide more families with excellent schools.

OSOL and many of the best schools across our City emerged when families raised their voices to demand quality– and either changed the system or built new schools from the ground up. District leaders must seek out and engage diverse parents, guardians, students, and community as they examine and make decisions about the future mix of schools, which they appear to be doing through their Blueprint for Quality process.

OUSD faces big challenges ahead – not only financial risks but also a teacher shortage, continued toxicity in the public arena, and strong institutional inertia. The solutions cannot rest completely on the shoulders of our District leaders. While I am optimistic that our new Superintendent and her team can provide leadership that our schools need, community-based organizations like ours and community leaders from all over the city have an obligation to both support and continue to push too. We have to send clear and sustained signals to the Board that tough decisions are needed, and we’re ready to make them together.

The sun, moon, and earth aligned for the historic eclipse last Monday. OSOL’s founding team aligned to create a new school. Now families, educators and community must align for the future of Oakland public education. Who’s ready to jump in?

[1] Full disclosure: Educate78 also contributed to the development of the school through our School Design Lab.

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