Mendocino County Office of Education: A Perspective on Education
When I was the superintendent of Anderson Valley Unified School District, it was clear to me that a certain percentage of families really struggled to get their students to school every day. I began researching the impacts of chronic absenteeism and how Mendocino County stacked up against other California counties. That’s when I discovered that our chronic absenteeism rates are almost double the state average. I began talking with Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman and District Attorney Dave Eyster to see what it would take to create a county-wide approach to the problem. What I discovered is that the problem could be solved if someone with the knowledge and expertise were willing to dedicate enough time and energy to it. I knew I cared enough to be that person, so I decided to run for county superintendent of schools.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of getting students to school every day. It is a critical building block of academic success. Studies prove what common sense would have us believe—if students aren’t in the classroom, they fall behind. What you may be surprised to learn is how little school students have to miss for the results to be devastating to their academic futures. When students miss just two days a month (which represents about 10 percent of the school year), they are statistically less likely to graduate. And it starts as early as kindergarten. In fact, the biggest detrimental effects often occur in the early grades when students are learning the fundamentals of English and mathematics.
There’s a great website called attendanceworks.org that goes into why attendance is so important and the reasons students skip school. To be clear, chronic absenteeism includes both truancy (unexcused absences) and excused absences. Whether students have a good reason to miss school or not, when they are not in the classroom they are not benefitting from the teacher’s instruction and interactions with their peers.
The data on this are so clear. Students who can read at grade level by third grade are about three times more likely to graduate from high school and go on for post-secondary education as compared to their peers to do not make the transition in third grade from learning to read to reading to learn. Authors of another study followed a cohort of students through high school and were able to correlate a lack of graduation back to their sixth-grade attendance, behavior and course failure.
School builds on material taught the year before. When students get behind in the early years, it can be incredibly difficult for them to catch up. Unfortunately, students who live in communities like ours with high levels of poverty are far more likely to be chronically absent than others because of factors out of their control such as unstable housing, unreliable transportation and a lack of access to health care.
So how to we address this problem? The answer varies because the reasons for chronic absenteeism vary. Our large school districts—Ukiah Unified, Willits Unified and Fort Bragg Unified—have put considerable time and resources into helping families get their students to school every day. Ukiah Unified, for example, added family-community liaisons to their staff and hired an additional school resource officer to work with families whose students are chronically absent. Our smaller districts rarely have the resources to hire additional staff, so school employees do their best to follow up with struggling families between other responsibilities. To help them, the county office of education provides training on how best to use their limited resources to combat chronic absenteeism.
Whether districts can afford more staff or not, at some point there need to be legal consequences for chronic absenteeism. I worked in a county with a successful school attendance review board (SARB). Both Tom Allman and Dave Eyster support the reduction of truancy, but they are pragmatists. Schools are not the only organizations with limited funding and stretched resources. Dave told me, “If I have to choose between prosecuting a murder case and prosecuting a parent whose child isn’t attending school, I’ll prosecute the murder case.” Who can blame him?
However, both he and Tom have said that if we created a family court system that only referred a small fraction of cases—the most egregious ones—to the D.A.’s office, that might work. So, that’s what I’m working on right now.
Superintendent of Schools