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More than 80,000 LAUSD students were 'chronically absent' from school last year

Empty school desk chairs sit in an elementary school classroom
Photo by Derek Bruff via Flickr Creative Commons
Empty school desk chairs sit in an elementary school classroom

One out of every seven students in the Los Angeles Unified School District — more than 80,000 kids — missed more than three weeks of classes, according to a report from an attendance task force presented to the district's school board Tuesday.

Missing that amount of school is enough to put a student's education at risk: Students who are "chronically absent," which many researchers define as missing at least 15 school days in a year, are more likely to drop out once they reach high school. Another 96,400 L.A. Unified students who missed between eight and 14 days of school last year are also at increased risk.

But beyond the educational impact, attendance is also a pocketbook issue for L.A. Unified: California funds public schools based on their daily attendance.

By missing its goal to decrease its chronic absenteeism rate, the task force concluded L.A. Unified lost out on around $20 million in revenues last year. And if every L.A. Unified student had attended one more day of school, the district would've received another $30 million last year, the task force found.

"Simply put: we can do better," said task force co-chair Austin Beutner, a former investment banker, deputy mayor of L.A. and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. He's currently president of the organization Vision to Learn.

"The district can do better. The community can do better," he said. "Too many kids aren't in school every day. Those kids aren't learning and the district isn't earning the revenues needed to support the entire classroom setting."

L.A. Unified Superintendent Michelle King, currently out on medical leave, said this summer she had asked Beutner to convene the task force to offer advisory opinions on some of the biggest issues facing the nation's second-largest school district. Absenteeism is the first item on the group's agenda.

The task force recommended the district launch several pilot efforts to improve the attendance rate, with each program targeting approximately 20,000 students:

  • A direct mail campaign, modeled on a similar effort in Philadelphia, that reinforces the importance of attendance while also informing parents of how many classes a student has missed.
  • Neighborhood canvassing, similar to efforts undertaken on L.A. Unified's dropout recovery days or by Long Beach Unified.
  • Phone-banking and text messaging to students who are missing classes. A program in Cleveland's school district that included phone-banking helped increase attendance by 11 percent, the task force said.
  • A pilot program to offer additional funding to principals whose can increase their schools' attendance rates.

The task force estimated these pilot programs would cost around $250,000. Organizations on the task force — a diverse group, representing local foundations, philanthropies, non-profits, advocacy organizations and academics — committed to contribute funds to cover half of that cost. L.A. Unified would fund the rest.
Beutner said ideally, the district would be able to offer counseling to each of the 80,000 chronically absent students. But because there isn't enough money available for that kind of effort, the task force has lined up a district-wide public awareness campaign to launch in January 2018.

Beutner said the theory behind this "boiling-the-whole-ocean" approach is that maybe increased awareness alone may help tackle the absenteeism problem.

Superintendent King has talked about taking steps to address the attendance rate in L.A. Unified, making a point of including a goal to reduce absenteeism in early drafts of her three-year strategic plan as early as September 2016.

But the task force's report concluded the district "does not have an adequate plan in place" to achieve any of the ambitious targets King set in her plan to reduce the chronic absenteeism rate to 9 percent this year. (In 2016-17, the rate was 14.3 percent.)

During a presentation to the L.A. Unified School Board on Tuesday, the task force's report was mostly well-received. But board member Ref Rodriguez did make one brief call for more urgent, district-wide action.

"Once we learn from these pilots," Rodriguez said, "we should not be afraid about going to scale — that really, if we are going to do this, that we're going to do it well."

The task force's report, based in part on a data analysis by the consulting firm Education Resource Strategies, also said L.A. Unified officials need to do more to ensure their current efforts to increase attendance are actually working.

L.A. Unified "spends approximately $40 million on which are specifically designed to reduce student absenteeism," the task force's report said. "The district, however, is not able to measure the efficacy of many of these programs."

The largest share of this spending was on Public Services and Attendance, or PSA, counselors who work with students in the foster system, who are homeless or who have attendance problems. But "research shows inconsistent results from the $23 million spent on PSA counselors," the task force's report said, adding later, "LAUSD needs to improve the measurement, efficacy, and accountability of the PSAs."

Beutner said this line isn't meant to impugn the performance of PSA counselors, but to express that the district doesn't have data that explain what accounts for each counselor's success or lack of success. Are the counselors at better-resourced schools more effective? Are counselors with better principals more effective? Are counselors spread correctly 

"It's seemingly random which PSA [counselors] are most effective and why," said Beutner, adding later, "if you look at the total spent, and then you look at those that are just the attendance-focused counselors, you ought to be able to isolate their impact on attendance."

"Although that particular employee population [PSA counselors] was mentioned in the report," said L.A. Unified's Acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian, "it really is everyone's responsibility to support the students … We have to look at the best way in which we can use our resources and target them. It isn't about the role or responsibility as it is about the distribution of resources."

The task force was co-chaired by Beutner and Laphonza Butler, the president of the SEIU Local 2015 union, which represents health care workers. Among the other task force members were former city controller Wendy Greuel as well as representatives from the LA84 Foundation, Cal State-Northridge, UCLA, the L.A. County Fair Association, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and others.

This story was updated on Weds., Dec. 6, with a more precise number of L.A. Unified students who missed between eight and 14 days of school last year.