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Using busing to combat kindergarten truancy

A mother picks up her child from the bus that takes children home around Oxnard from a day at Headstart.
Grant Slater/KPCC
A mother picks up her child from the bus that takes children home around Oxnard from a day at Headstart.

A study released last week reveals an unexpected approach to help schools reduce chronic student absenteeism: making sure kids ride the school bus.

“A lot of the work that’s been done in absenteeism focuses on looking at characteristics of the child or the family,” such as poverty or student disengagement from school said U.C. Santa Barbara education researcher Michael Gottfried.

But Gottfried found that decisions made by the school system around transportation can also help solve the problem.

His nationwide study of 14,370 kindergarteners in the 2010-2011 school year asked whether kindergarteners taking the school bus have fewer absences than children who get to school by walking, car, or any other way.

He found that 12 percent of the children who took the school bus were chronically absent, two percent lower than kindergarteners who didn’t take the bus.

That percentage is small, but because he studied chronic absences – children absent ten or more days out of the school year – the cumulative effect could be large. By increasing the number of kindergartners taking the bus schools nationwide, schools could cut the number of lost instructional days by 1.04 million, he said.

According to California officials, 210,000 students missed 10 percent or more of the school year in 2016 because of unexcused absences. And researchers have found that chronic truancy in kindergarten leads to lower test scores in third grade.

Gottfried joined an effort by the state attorney general’s office to shed light on the effects of chronic truancy on students and schools. Most school districts have taken steps in the last few years to cut chronic truancy and Gottfried wanted to give schools a concrete step that’s been shown by research to have an impact.

“Kindergarteners have the highest absenteeism rates,” because the transition into kindergarten is tough, Gottfried said.

There’s a deeper takeaway from the results, he said, beyond adding bus routes that could test already tight budgets. He calls it the “school bus effect.”

“Yes, the bus is important but [we should also ask] what is the bus symbolizing, what is the bus doing for kids and families and how can we still do that in the absence of this resource?” he said.

The bus symbolizes the process of coming up with a routine and plan to get to school like “going to bed on time, getting up on time, having breakfast, being out at the bus stop on time,” said Vicki Bansberg, a dispatcher at the Centralia School District and president of the Orange County Chapter of the California Association of School Transportation Officials.

Bansberg said her school district provided school bus service to all students at designated stops before budget cuts nearly a decade ago. She said she wants to take the results of Gottfried’s study to school officials to start a conversation about whether busing cuts have increased absenteeism and are therefore hurting school budgets in more indirect ways.

Many school districts are trying to improve attendance by rewarding students with perfect attendance through raffles and giveaways. Some school leaders had not thought about whether busing kids had an impact on absenteeism.

“Some parents of kindergartners are a little reluctant to put 5-year-olds on a bus and have them taken away,” said Garry Creel, director of Child Welfare and Attendance at the Azusa Unified School District.

His school district has worked hard with student incentives to achieve a 94 percent attendance rate, he said. But looking at the school district’s chronic truancy, there is room for improvement. Kindergarteners tend to be more chronically truant than students as a whole.

Creel said district data show that 2.49 percent of the school districts kindergarteners missed ten percent or more of the school year. That’s significantly higher than the district-wide rate, 1.63 percent.

According to the report more than three-fourths of elementary school students who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade fell below sate expectations in English and math in the third grade.

Nearly all school districts surveyed by state officials said they’d carried out or planned to carry out reforms to improve attendance in elementary school.