At least 225,000 Southern California public school students miss at least three weeks of class each year which, research suggests, puts them at risk of falling behind in school — if not dropping out altogether.
Those students attend schools in 47 districts in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Ventura and western Riverside counties the authors of a new national analysis identified as having notable concentrations of "chronic absenteeism."
Tracking 'excused' absences
The problem is just as pronounced, if not more pronounced, in the Southland's suburban and rural schools, the report shows. The rates of chronic absenteeism in suburban Simi Valley (11.45 percent) rival those in Long Beach (12.6 percent) or L.A. Unified (12.7 percent).
The rural Antelope Valley Union Joint High School District posted the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the area (28.11 percent), topping schools in the Lawndale Elementary (26.8 percent) and Compton Unified (20.76 percent) school districts. There were more students in the somewhat-rural Perris Union High School District in Riverside County (2,907) who missed at least 15 days of school than in all of Pasadena Unified (2,066).
Until recently, the report's authors say chronic absenteeism has been largely overlooked in U.S. schools. In some states, officials effectively only tracked truancy rates — which tracks only unexcused absences — which ignores the impact that even high accumulations of excused absences can have on a student.
"Chronic absence is really a proven early indicator of academic risk starting as early as preschool and kindergarten," said Hedy Chang, co-author of the report and executive director of an initiative called Attendance Works, during a conference call with reporters.
"By middle and high school, it is a surefire predictor of kids being on the path to dropout, not success," Chang said, "and if it reaches high levels, the classroom churn can affect the learning of all students in the classroom — not just those who are chronically absent."
High number of absentee students in a handful of districts
The report, drawn from recently-released federal education data, identifies a widespread problem: nine out of every 10 U.S. school districts saw "some level of chronic absenteeism" during the 2013-14 school year. At least 6.5 million students missed 15 or more days of instruction.
But the report's authors say the problem is particularly acute in a relative handful of U.S. districts. Half of the chronically absent students in the nation attend just 654 districts — including those 47 in Southern California.
"Quite a small subset of districts and a pretty small subset of schools face a much higher degree of concentration or number of chronically-absent kids than everywhere else," said report co-author Robert Balfanz, an education professor and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.
"That both, in a way, makes solutions more possible," Balfanz said, "because we can concentrate supports in a few number of places, but it also makes us aware that we have to both have broad outreach to everyone."
The scale of the chronic absenteeism problem in California's urban districts, at least, pales in comparison to some other U.S. cities. Chronic absenteeism rates in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Milwaukee all approach 40 percent. In Cleveland, it's 47 percent. In Detroit, it's 58 percent.
The report's authors say California has taken steps in the right direction. State law lays out a clear definition of a chronically-absent student: one who misses 10 percent or more of a school year, the equivalent of 18 instructional days. The state also requires districts to track and report chronic absenteeism rates as a part of their Local Control Accountability Plans.
Chang said solving the problem will likely involve "multi-sector" solutions, calling on health-care providers and social service agencies for help, especially in districts where chronic absenteeism is both a symptom and a cause in the cycle of poverty. But more generally, Chang said solving the problem begins with raising public awareness of this rule of thumb:
"Just missing two days a month" for the entire school year, she said, "can throw you off-track for academic success."