The SFUSD is developing a district-wide attendance plan, which will be presented to the board in the spring. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

School district struggles to stem rising absenteeism rates

Chronic absenteeism is on the rise in San Francisco’s public schools, particularly among African American students, despite focused efforts in recent years to tackle long standing disparities.

SFUSD considers a student who misses 10 percent or more of the school year as chronically absent.

At 11 percent, the number of chronically absent students across the district was on a three year high in the fall of 2018, but the percentage of black students regularly missing school was almost three times higher.

According to a report presented to the school board on Tuesday, 29 percent of the district’s black students — who make up less than 10 percent of the district’s student body— were chronically absent in the fall of 2018, up from 26 percent in the prior year.

Among black high school students, chronic absenteeism increased by 10 percent — from 24 to 34 percent — over the last three years.

Commissioner Mark Sanchez on Tuesday called the data “terrible for African American students.”

“We still don’t really understand all the multiple factors that are driving these numbers nor do we have a way to gauge our ability to address those factors,” School Board President Stevon Cook said, adding that academic regression happens when students are not in school.

Commissioner Faauga Moliga, who is a behavioral health therapist, wanted to know if the district is tracking data on the reasons behind students’ absenteeism or suspensions.

“How many of those kids are coming from single family homes? Was there a shooting last night in the community? I really want to make sure we are addressing the core issues,” said Moliga, adding that he would like to see data collected to that end.

Kevin Truitt, SFUSD’s Chief of Student, Family and Community Support, said that the district does provide some support for students and families when personal traumas impact school attendance.

“Sometimes when students are in crisis we do see personal data and track it and we can see what impact it’s having on students,” said Truitt. “We have discussions, I assure you every week on many students. I think the social workers at our schools are doing amazing work.”

He also said that several schools have succeeded in lowering absentee rates by prioritizing the issue and implementing “Safe and Supportive Schools” strategies.

The 2014 Safe and Supportive Schools Policy, which focuses on improving school climate, was adopted to address inequities faced by black students, including the jarringly disproportionate rates at which they were being suspended. The policy followed a shift away from suspension and toward restorative practices by the district in 2009.

The policy, which includes support such as training for school staff in de-escalation and additional support staff, has resulted in some progress.

“Wallenberg High School has one of lowest chronic absenteeism rates for African American students of all high schools — they attribute this to a change in bell schedule that addresses [the school’s] tardiness issues,” said Truitt. “If a student is absent parents are called immediately.”

But the improvements are not uniform, and resources are not equally distributed across the district.

While the district has an automated call system to notify parents if their students did not show up for school, Truitt said that personalized phone calls by teachers, support staff and so-called attendance liaisons are more effective, as these calls enable school staff to address issues such as bullying at school or a conflict in the student’s life.

“The most effective person to call home is the teacher, because the teacher has relationship with that student,” said Truitt.

At Wallenberg, teachers are allotted time each day to call parents regarding attendance issues, which has had “a tremendous impact,” according to Truitt.

However, not every school has attendance liaisons. Truitt said that teachers at schools with fewer resources or with more behavioral or teacher retention issues often do not have time for personalized phone calls.

Commissioner Alison Collins noted that while the trainings and supports provided under Safe and Supportive Schools policy are making a difference, implementation is not mandatory.

An attendance working group made up of district and school staff and members of the African American Parent Advisory Council formed this fall will be meeting with community members to develop a district-wide attendance plan, said Truitt. The plan will be presented to the board in the spring, he said.

Cook said that he is interested in seeing the district form partnerships with City departments to tackle the issue.

“What really needs to happen is that the district needs help in getting to the bottom of the different issues affecting absenteeism and where they can’t make inroads asking for partnerships to support keeping kids in school,” Cook told the San Francisco Examiner.

Those partnerships may already be forming. At a town hall with the Dignity Fund Coalition, Mayor London Breed suggested addressing the school district’s chronic absenteeism problem by staffing schools with seniors to call families of absent students.

Cook supported this idea as a potential solution.

“I want the district to get down to the top factors that are contributing to absenteeism — that would be a huge step in the right direction,” said Cook. “Once we know what the top three are we can create strategies to address those with those students, for however long they are with us.”

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