Hart district chronic absenteeism rate down 9% 

The sign in front of the William S. Hart Union High School District administrative office. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
The sign in front of the William S. Hart Union High School District administrative office. Katherine Quezada/The Signal
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School districts across the state have seen an uptick in chronic absenteeism since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the California Department of Education, chronic absenteeism rose to 30% in the 2021-22 school year before dropping to 24.9% in 2022-23, which still represents more than double the 12.1% rate from 2018-19. 

Chronic absenteeism has generally been defined as being absent during 10% or more of a given school year. 

The William S. Hart Union High School District has not been immune to this. According to Jacquie Pershing, a social worker with the district who explained the benefits of being in school at last week’s governing board meeting, the district’s absenteeism rate rose to 18.7% in 2022-23, a number that board member Cherise Moore said “seems like a lot” for the district. 

Even more shocking to her and the rest of the board was hearing that the rate for seniors in the district was at 35% for that time period. 

Travel back to the 2018-19 school year, and the overall number was at 9%, according to the CDE. In other words, half of what the district was looking at last year. 

Things are starting to turn around for the Hart district, though. Pershing said the absenteeism rate has dropped to 16% for the first semester of the current school year, a 9% downtick from the same time period last year. That is due, in part, to the district’s “Be Present” campaign that was rolled out at the beginning of this school year, Pershing said. 

“The goal behind the campaign was to really raise awareness around student attendance and the importance of student attendance,” Pershing said. “But it also had the goal of having our students, their families, our school sites, our district and our community as a whole really reflect on the question of, ‘What does it mean to be present? What does it mean to show up every day, and also be present? What does it look like to be present, not just in school, but also in life?’”

One of the big talking points when it comes to combatting chronic absenteeism is removing the stigma associated with missing class, Pershing said. Whereas previously students who constantly missed class time were seen as truant, which only counts unexcused absences and emphasizes compliance with school rules and relies on legal and administrative solutions, chronic absenteeism looks at all types of absences — excused, unexcused and suspensions — while emphasizing the academic impact of missed days and the use of community-based, positive strategies to reinforce the importance of attending class. 

“Whereas truancy says, ‘Shame on you,’” Pershing said, “chronic absenteeism says, ‘Hey, what’s going on? How can I support you? How can I identify the barriers and the obstacles that are keeping you from accessing your education?’” 

Some statistics that Pershing provided include: 

  • Being four times more likely to drop out of high school and much less likely to read at grade level when chronically absent in preschool through first grade. 
  • More than 10% of kindergarten and first-grade students are chronically absent. 
  • Being chronically absent in any year between grades eight through 12 makes you seven times more likely to drop out of school. 
  • College graduates are likely to live about nine years longer than those who have not completed high school. 

There are multiple factors that can affect a student’s ability to be in class, Pershing said. Those include societal, physical and mental factors, and a student could be suffering from pressure from all three sections of what Pershing described as the “health triangle.” 

Societal factors that could influence a student to miss class include food insecurity, housing instability and lack of health insurance.  

“Our district social workers have supported over 1,500 families with resources so far just this academic year to help with the barriers of housing instability and transportation issues,” Pershing said. 

Physical factors include asthma and vision and dental concerns. To combat this, the district spent close to $1 million to help students who would otherwise not have access to health care services. 

“Just as an example, our district nurses, social workers and wellness coordinators put on a mobile clinic this past year that provided families with dental and vision care,” Pershing said. “Approximately 875 individuals were served at no cost. So, these families got to walk away with two pairs of glasses each and this was really because of the partnership that we have with our amazing community.” 

Mental health is another aspect the district is looking at as it seeks to improve attendance, using school-provided therapy and wellness centers to help students to overcome mental hurdles. 

“There is a lot of great work being done, but we still have a ways to go,” Pershing said. 

Taking a day off from school for being sick has also become more normal since the pandemic, according to Pershing. But now that society has returned to more normalcy, the district is attempting to redefine what sickness is after the pandemic. 

Pershing said students who have temperatures higher than 100.4 degrees, are throwing up or have diarrhea should stay home, while mild stomachaches or headaches, mild allergies or cold symptoms or a slight fever are not reasons to miss school. 

And as the Hart district works under a 180-day schedule, Pershing said every day missed is a missed opportunity for a student to learn and gain through social interactions. 

“Sure, every student can make up an assignment,” Pershing said. “Sure, every student can go on Google Classroom and access that work. But they cannot recover what is most valuable when they are absent, and that is the ability to ask questions in live time to their teachers and to their peers, to engage in the activities that are happening in the classroom, to hear the lecture and the explanations of the materials that our teachers are explaining. And the interactions. They're missing out on the interactions that bring learning to life. 

Both Moore and fellow board member Joe Messina wondered if there could be more opportunities to share the message that attendance matters. Pershing responded by saying that the district has been using social events that take place before, during and after school to encourage students to be in class as much as possible. 

“When you look at all the research regarding chronic absenteeism and student absenteeism, all of the research says it's about relationship, it's about community,” Pershing said. “And when we look at what students cite for not attending school, they say it's due to not being seen and not feeling connected. So, things like cheer, things like being involved in clubs and finding connection, having trusted adults on campus is so impactful and does increase attendance.” 

She added that home visits are also taking place for students who are missing class more than most, and those students have seen increases in attendance after factors disrupting their ability to attend have been identified and removed. 

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