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SF schools working to combat chronic absenteeism

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Students who miss 10 percent or more of the school year are considered chronic absentees. Eight of 12 district high schools in San Francisco reported more than 11 percent of their students were chronically absent last year. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)

Students in San Francisco’s public schools may at first just miss a day of class here and there; but they can fall so far behind that they eventually drop out.

That’s why Supervisor Norman Yee on Thursday said he will convene a working group to reduce chronic absenteeism in San Francisco schools. The group will make a point of trying to help minority students, who tend to miss more school in The City.

Students who miss 10 percent or more of the school year are considered chronic absentees, regardless of whether the absence was excused, according to the San Francisco Unified School District. If a student misses one day each month of the school year, that youth is also considered chronically absent.

“When you fall behind, it’s very, very difficult to catch up,” Yee said of students who are chronically absent. “At some point, students get frustrated to the point where they stop going to school — they drop out.”

Despite a 2010 school board resolution that called for the district to drop its chronic absenteeism-rate at elementary schools to no more than 10 percent, 29 of the 72 elementary schools in the district reported having rates above 11 percent last year, according to Yee’s office.

Eight of 12 district high schools also reported that more than 11 percent of their students were chronically absent last year, Yee said.

At a Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee hearing Thursday to address attendance problems in SFUSD schools, representatives of the district as well as city and state offices said they are trying to reduce the attendance problem.

“We have a good, solid data system,” said Thomas Graven, executive director of the district’s Student, Family and Community Department. “We know almost in real time when kids are not in class. … The challenge we have is how can we be accountable for every kid that is chronically absent.”

Though Graven presented at the hearing only percentages rather than numbers of chronic absenteeism, the data still indicates ethnic disparities in attendance.

For example, 5 percent of white students in the district were chronically absent last fall, compared to 20 percent of black students. Of those black students, 7 percent missed a fifth or more of the school semester.

“Not every kid probably has the best home environment,” said Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who sits on the committee. “We have to do a better job with being aggressive going after those kids.”

Yee invited the groups at the hearing — ranging from The City’s Department on Children, Youth and Their Families to the Mayor’s Office on HOPE — to begin working together to come up with a plan in six months for minimizing chronic absences in The City.

Teanna Tillery, a dropout prevention specialist with the SFUSD, said the district already has “child welfare attendance liaisons” who attend truancy court, make home visits for students and perform schoolwide interventions when necessary.

There’s also the Truancy Action Partnership, a multi-agency program active at three elementary schools in The City to help bridge barriers between schools and families, Tillery said. That could mean helping parents drop children off at school, working through domestic violence situations and referring families to other services.

“This is the start of our plans in the school district,” she told supervisors at the hearing.

Yee plans to introduce a resolution at an upcoming board meeting to formalize the working group.

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