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Sonoma schools absenteeism varies widely

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Chronic absenteeism in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District was higher than the state average in 2018, according to a report presented last month by the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

And the range in chronic absenteeism varied widely within Sonoma Valley – from a high at Dunbar Elementary School of 22.1 percent to a low at El Verano Elementary School of 0 percent.

Any student who fails to attend school 10 percent of the time is identified as chronically absent by the state of California. In Sonoma, where the instructional calendar runs 180 days, a chronically absent student misses 18 days or more, equivalent to three-and-a-half weeks of the 10-month school year.

Statewide, 9 percent of the K-8 student population were identified as chronically absent. In Sonoma, 10.7 percent of all K-8 students missed at least 10 percent of the year, a rate 16 percent higher than the statewide average.

Percentages at individual campuses varied widely.

Prestwood, Sassarini, Dunbar and Altimira's absenteeism rates were all above the state threshold. Flowery, El Verano and Adele Harrison’s numbers were below.

The category, newly added to the metrics of California Dashboard, the state’s “accountability and continuous improvement system,” applies to absences of every kind: excused, unexcused, and disciplinary suspensions.

For decades, “truancy” was the word used to describe non-attendance, and only unexcused absences were counted. “It was traditionally punitive,” said student services coordinator Sydney Smith. “Truant kids were reported to the district attorney. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t. Chronic absenteeism is about absence no matter the reason. If students aren’t in the chair, they can’t learn. But the kids whose absences are excused are easier to miss. They're a little harder to tease out.”

The rates of absenteeism at individual Sonoma Valley public schools were reported at the January school board meeting.

Chronic absenteeism at Prestwood Elementary School was 9.9 percent. Sassarini Elementary school had an absenteeism rate of 12.6 percent. Altimira Middle School was 16.1 percent.

Dunbar Elementary earned the highest absenteeism mark with 22.1 percent of its students chronically absent last year. According to Smith, days missed by students in the wake of the 2017 fires were not counted against any school's calculated attendance rates.

Local schools near or below the state absenteeism average were Flowery Elementary School at 9.3 percent; Adele Harrison Middle School at 8.5 percent; and El Verano Elementary earning the district’s lowest rate with 0 percent of its students chronically absent in 2018.

(Results for Sonoma Charter School and Woodland Star Charter School were both listed on California Dashboard, but neither was included in the results presented to trustees. Neither Sonoma Valley High School nor Creekside High School had 2018 absenteeism data posted on the Dashboard, and neither was addressed in the report.)

Asked if the district had identified a profile that could predict which kids might regularly skip school, Smith said her team was just getting started.

“We haven’t had the chance yet to dig in,” said Smith, adding that district officials had planned to meet about it. “But we don’t want to spend an extraordinary amount of time looking back. We want to look forward to solutions.”

Smith said they are “looking into the different rates at each school and the reasons for them.”

In examining the data, which the district received in September, Smith was struck by El Verano’s differentiation. “We wonder if the wrap-around services offered by the Family Resource Center at El Verano are supporting families and if that could be positively impacting the attendance rates. Something good has happened there, and we’re not sure why.”

Unpacking the reasons kids are absent requires a bit of “detective work,” according to Smith. “We’re going to start reaching out to families of kids we see are having too many absences this current year and start asking questions. Generally, we find the things keeping them from school are beyond the child’s control.”

But Smith is convinced that apathy is not the culprit.

“It is never, ever the case that kids miss school because the parents or students don’t care. What we don’t want to do is make premature assumptions. We need to find the root cause and find solutions that address it, not mask it. This is a new way of looking at absences. There are things we can do to help.”

Email Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the school district's clarification that the October 2017 were not a factor in the 2017-2018 school year absenteeism figures.

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