Contra Costa County Truancy Rates Among Worst in State
By Joyce Tsai, Bay Area News Group
Contra Costa County ranked last out of the nine Bay Area counties in chronic absences of its elementary school students last year, according to a grand jury report released last week.
With an overall K-12 truancy rate of 38.9 percent last year, the county had a ranking worse than neighboring Alameda County, at 27 percent, and the statewide average of 31.1 percent, the report notes. That means that out of 180,000 students in the county, 10,000 of them had at least three unexcused absences last year, fitting the definition of truancy. And those who were "chronically absent," defined as being absent for any reason 10 percent or more of the school year, or approximately two days a month, were an even larger number, the report says.
As a result, the Contra Costa grand jury panel found that the county's truancy rates also ranked among the worst throughout the state -- 46th out of 58 counties, calling it "a disturbing picture for the county.—Students who are chronically absent from schools endanger their futures and sow seeds of future cost and problems for the County," the panel cautioned.
The report noted that not only are habitual truants more prone to low student achievement and higher dropout rates, they often feed the school-to-prison pipeline. More than 80 percent of prison inmates were truant or chronically absent when students, it notes. The high number of chronically absent students has led to a significant loss of state education funding, which is based on average daily attendance: $36 million in 2015.
The panel recommends the Contra Costa County Board of Education consider developing a comprehensive multiyear plan for improving attendance rates, and assess each district's capacity to collect, track and improve attendance in order to collaborate on ways to combat the problem.
A free and effective attendance tracking program, called Attendance Works, was made available through the County Board of Education to a number of districts, however, many districts have not installed it and continue to use different software systems that cannot communicate with each other, the panel found.
Other recommendations include:
- That the county provide long-term funding for attendance improvement programs used by juvenile courts, such as ankle monitors, drug and mental health counselors, and tutoring. Those programs are currently funded through county health funds and three-year grants.
- That the West Contra Costa district have its own teen truancy court in Richmond, rather than requiring students to go to Martinez, which already has a heavy caseload.
- That cities set and enforcing daytime curfews, which have been effective at curbing truancy.
Terry Koehne, a spokesman for the county's Office of Education, said the county has worked extensively with juvenile justice, the district attorney's office and health and human services in the past few years to try to curb the problem.
"It is not just a school issue, it is a family issue, a community issue," he said. "There have been many intentional changes in our county over the past few years to address the issue, provide more family education and motivate kids to change behaviors."
In addition to its "Every School Day Counts" awareness campaign, the office's Attendance Works network includes five school districts and one county education student program. Both have helped achieve significant reductions in chronic absence rates, he said.
Although the county office does not collect attendance data from the school districts, the state Department of Education has recently approved an expansion of its existing CALPAD data system to include the collection of chronic absence rates, which should be a tremendous help in tracking and documentation issue, he said.
Laura Delehunt, deputy district attorney for the county's Parent Truancy Court in Martinez, which started in October to help the county's truants age 12 and under, said she hopes decision makers will follow the report's recommendations. In particular, she said she would hate to see funding for attendance improvement programs used by families dry up after three years.
"Children that are chronically absent through kindergarten through third grade are far more likely to be absent later in life," she said.
Agencies have 90 days to respond to the report. To read it, go to http://bit.ly/296sC35.
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-945-4764. Follow her at Twitter.com/joycetsainews.