Facing a crisis of chronically absent students last academic year, education officials in Los Angeles County spent the summer training employees to connect with families so the kids can get back to class next month.
Teachers and social workers have learned to recognize mental health problems; and helping parents find resources such as childcare so older siblings can go back to school.
Last year, the number of chronically absent students in the LA Unified School District was staggeringly high.
More than half of all LA Unified students — more than 200,000 children — were chronically absent last year. Chronically absent students miss more than 9% of the school year.
In the Spring, LA Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho promised to follow personally 30 chronically absent students. Last month, at a conference in Orlando, Florida, Carvalho said 10 out of 30 students were home without parents. “No adult took care of them,” he said.
Chronically absent students had to stay at home with their siblings, look for a job or simply be unable to find transportation to school. Now, Carvalho estimates that tens of thousands of students are not enrolled in school at all this year.
Carvalho told the Los Angeles Times that the chronic absenteeism rate was “extremely high.”
The numbers were even more striking for LA’s most vulnerable populations. Almost 70% of the homeless youth and almost 60% of the foster youth were chronically absent. With the 2022-2023 school year fast approaching, Marian Chiara, the coordinator of the Education Attendance Office in LA, said educators are trying to get ahead of the problem. Schools in Los Angeles plan to combat chronic absenteeism in three key ways:
1. Educators will pay special attention to students’ mental health
“…After all that has happened with the pandemic, students are more emotionally vulnerable,” said Jennifer Kottke, homeless education coordinator with the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Kids who struggle with mental health often have trouble coming to class consistently, she said.
This summer, hundreds of LA educators and administrators attended multiple workshops aimed at identifying and treating the mental health needs of students at risk of chronic absenteeism. “Mental health is the number one priority. We need to take care of the whole child if we want them to feel supported and successful in school. We can’t just look at the fact that they are chronically absent,” Chiara said. “We need to understand why that’s the case and work with them before it becomes a problem.”
Workshops with teachers focused on learning to recognize anxiety in students and integrating ‘self-care activities’ into the classroom, such as meditation, journaling and learning to set boundaries. School “should be a safe place for students who feel overwhelmed and unstable, not a place where they become more stressed.”
2. Administrators will focus on forging solid relationships with parents
Low-income students had the largest increase in chronic absenteeism from school year 2017-18 to school year 2021-2022. Only 16.9% of low-income students were chronically absent in 2017-18, while 50% were chronically absent in 2021-22.
Chiara said many low-income parents had to take second jobs or put their children to work during the pandemic, leading to a serious increase in absenteeism for low-income students.
“We need to focus on the parents and look at their experiences with the school and what is happening for them at home… especially those who are struggling financially,” Chiara said, adding that many parents keep their children at home because they are single. are parents and need someone to care for younger siblings or help around the house.
“Our job is to give these parents the support they need,” she said.
This academic year, LA County will provide social workers to low-income families to connect them with free mental health care and child care, Chira said.
3. Schools will switch from punitive to restorative practices
Chiara said Los Angeles’ stance on chronic absenteeism has changed in recent years, focusing more on solving families’ problems rather than punishing students for not showing up.
“We’re really trying to move away from punitive measures,” she said. Pupils who are punished for their absence are less likely to return to school.
Black students are being punished and suspended across the country at disproportionately higher rates than their white classmates. In LA, 56.8% of black students were chronically absent last year, compared to only 31.8% of white students.
“We know that children need to feel successful to want to go back to school. We want to create a supportive environment for students instead of punishing them,” Chiara said. “Especially after the pandemic, many students will have developmental and behavioral problems. Let’s understand that and meet these kids where they are.”