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Low-income and Minority Students More Likely to Be Chronically Absent

Although chronic absences have decreased since 2009, the San Rafael City School District will be working one-on-one with students to improve their attendance.

Although chronic absences have improved over the past three years, low-income and minority students are more likely to miss school days, according to data presented by the San Rafael City School District.

Of the 91 students who were considered chronically absent for the 2011-12 school year, 65 percent were Latino, African American, Asian or Pacific Islander and 75 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch services. Average daily attendance effects the amount of funding a school receives from the state. Students who miss more days of school are less likely to pass on to the next grade or graduate once in high school, according to school officials.

“In kindergarten, for example, what if a kid is absent the day they introduce the letter ‘B?’ It’s a problem they have for the rest of their life,” SRCS Superintendent Michael Watenpaugh said at Monday night’s school board meeting.

To be considered chronically absent, a student must miss more than 10 percent of the school year. Students at-risk of becoming chronically absent miss more than 5 percent. Nearly 62 percent of minority and low-income students qualified to be at risk.

Low-income and minority students are more likely to confront barriers regarding attendance. At San Pedro Elementary, most students rely on bus services and if they miss a bus it could mean they miss school for the day, Watenpaugh said. He’s also heard of several cases where older students stay home to babysit their younger siblings if they are sick, when a parent can’t afford to miss work.

Grade level also played a part in attendance. Approximately 6 percent of kindergarteners and 4 percent of fifth graders are already chronically absent and more are at risk. School officials are working with parents to dispel the myth that absences early in a child’s school career won’t have major effects on later school performance.

Over the past three years, attendance at all schools has improved. The district now has an overall rate of 3 percent for chronically absent students, compared to 5 percent for the 2009-10 school year. The number of at-risk students has also decreased by 4 percentage points from three years before.

“We’ve definitely done better in the last three years, so we’re on the right track,” School Board Member Linda Jackson said. “I encourage to continue to really narrow in on what our students need.”

Now, school staff will focus on students individually who are missing too much school, as opposed to evaluating the entire school itself as in previous years. Teachers will identify the at-risk or chronically absent, and staff will develop a case management plan to get the student back on track to continue on to the next grade level. The district is also considering replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school disciplinary actions, so a student won’t miss more classes.

“It’s that personal level that we need so these kids can be in school and have a greater chance of success,” Watenpaugh said.

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