Chronic absenteeism in PAUSD secondary schools increases by 1.6 percentage points from 2020 levels

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY YAO

Newly released Palo Alto Unified School District attendance data shows that chronic absenteeism among the district’s high schooler student body has increased by 1.6 percentage points this year.

7.1% of PAUSD high schoolers were recorded to be chronically absent between Aug. 12 and Sept. 17, which is an increase from 2019 and 2020 levels in which 5.3% and 5.5% of the student body were chronically absent, respectively. The district attributed the increase to COVID-19 related factors such as mandated quarantines and health concerns.

District documents define a “chronic absentee” as a student absent for 10% of school days on which they are enrolled and school takes place; both unexcused and excused absences are included in this number.

Chronic absenteeism is notably higher in groups like Black students (18.1%), socioeconomically disadvantaged students (16.9%) and special education students (16.3%) — all of which have increased from 2019, though attendance has long been an “area of concern” within the district. 

Palo Alto High School Student Board Representative Michaiah Acosta suggested that the reason for elevated chronic absenteeism in specific groups may be caused by on-campus dynamics.

“When students don’t have someone at school who they feel like they can relate to on a deeper level … they are less inclined to actually go to school and perform well,” Acosta said.

Board member Jennifer Dibrienza echoed Acosta’s sentiment.

“I think we have long looked at attendance as the problem, and sometimes it’s the symptom of another problem,” Dibrienza said.

PAUSD’s tiered attendance system aims to be “relationship based,” according to Guillermo Lopez, the district’s director of student services and supports.

Tier 1 support starts at any unexcused absence or unexcused tardy over 30 minutes. The district might call home, take attendance in a “caring manner” and provide personalized outreach from teachers to families. 

The goal of Tier 2 — eight unexcused class periods, the equivalent of two instructional days — is to draft plans for attendance success. 

“Continue to let the student know they are missed when not on campus,” district documents instruct. “If a student does not have a trusted adult on campus, create a connection.”

Tier 3 arrives at 12 unexcused class periods, the equivalent of six days of instruction The district sends truancy letters, and an administrator, counselor or social worker may pay a home visit. At 24 unexcused class periods, the student is required to meet with the School Attendance Review Team (SART).

Past Tier 3, home visits continue and students are required to attend a School Attendance Review Board (SARB) meeting.

Healthy attendance was listed among the district’s top five priorities for the 2021–2022 school year, as outlined in its PAUSD Promise

The PAUSD Attendance Improvement Initiative (AII), aims to work toward all identifiable student groups’ drop below 5% in chronic absenteeism.

“Some of the areas that require deeper exploration system wide are school climate and bullying, health-related issues such as stress and anxiety, academic conditions that result in school avoidance, schome situations, and individual student characteristics,” district documents said.

According to those documents, bimonthly District Office Attendance Team meetings are working to discuss attendance efforts. Student success coaches will specifically focus on attendance with groups identified through the data as needing support.

“We’re trying to get additional feedback from the site administration [on] how to better adjust the protocols in the systems that we have in place to be more mindful as to what our students are experiencing,” Lopez said. “We’re calibrating as we go.”

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