In an era of deep budget cuts, school districts across California are putting a greater emphasis on reducing absences in an effort to shore up the state funding based on daily attendance.
Adding fuel to the push for better attendance are educators' worries that kids already are missing out on crucial instructional time because furlough days have become an increasingly common way for districts to save money.
And with rising federal and state academic standards, educators say the remaining school days have become ever more crucial for California students.
"There is both academic and financial benefit to this. It's not rocket science," said Hedy Chang, director of the state and national initiative Attendance Works.
Chang pointed to the recent focus on attendance by the largest school district in California, Los Angeles Unified, that has meant an infusion of state funding that previously had been lost.
"Their attendance improvement has brought them millions," she said.
A pilot program targeting chronic truants has been launched to focus on six of Santa Rosa City Schools' eight feeder elementary school districts: Bellevue, Bennett Valley, Mark West, Piner-Olivet, Rincon Valley and Wright.
"Truancy starts then. Kids, by the time they are in middle and high school, end up with real school engagement problems," said Cate Griffiths, executive director of Recourse Mediation Service, which is overseeing Project School Attendance Mediation.
The program is designed to address family issues that can make it difficult to get a child to school: mental and physical health issues, insecure housing, and transportation problems.
For Santa Rosa City Schools, by far the largest school district in Sonoma County, a 1 percent fluctuation in attendance has an impact of approximately $837,000 a year. In 2011-12, a slight uptick in attendance meant $54,000 in added revenue from the prior year.
District-wide, only 4 percent of elementary school students are absent on an average day. In high school, the rate is 5 percent.
Educators say poor attendance can be tricky to handle in part because officials are reluctant to encourage kids who are unwell to show up for class. Absenteeism, in many cases, has less to do with school and more to do with issues at home, officials said.
Chronic truancy -- defined as missing 10 percent of instructional days for excused and unexcused absences -- can go unaddressed because it is essentially masked by daily attendance rates, Chang said.
Schools that report an average of more than 90 percent daily attendance can have up to 40 percent of their students chronically truant because on different days, different students make up the 90 percent, according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University.
No Santa Rosa City Schools campus has had an average daily attendance rate below 90 percent since 2009-10. The average attendance rate on elementary campuses last year was 96 percent and on middle and high school campuses it was 95 percent.
"Schools have picked up on that and created programs within their school to promote attendance," Associate Superintendent Doug Bower said.
At Comstock Middle School, attendance technician Maria Lopez calls the home of every student who is tardy by more than 30 minutes or absent. And she keeps calling throughout the day until she gets past an answering machine.
These calls are in addition to the automatic, so-called "robo call" sent out by the district upon every absence.