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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.

"She is kind of relentless," Principal Laura Hendrickson said. "Because we are a smaller school, we can do a little more of a personal touch," she said.

Comstock officials last semester treated students who earned perfect attendance records, as well as those with certain grade-point averages, to hot chocolate at lunch.

"In algebra, the teacher says if we miss a day, we are behind," said eighth- grader Arely Salinas. "I can catch up, but I want to be here to learn every new thing."

Salinas has not missed a day of school in her time as a Comstock Crusader.

Among Santa Rosa City Schools middle school campuses, attendance rates vary only slightly. Across the district's five middle schools and five high schools, rates of absenteeism correlate directly with schools' poverty rates.

In 2011-12, Rincon Valley Middle School had the highest attendance rate at nearly 97 percent. Cook Middle School had the lowest, at 93 percent.

Maria Carrillo High School has the lowest poverty rate among the district's five high schools and the lowest rate of absenteeism. Elsie Allen High School has the highest rate of poverty and the highest rate of absenteeism.

"The poverty part is that the parents are not themselves highly educated. Maybe they didn't finish high school and they don't have that piece," Cook Middle School Principal Patty Turner said. "They are not keeping score. They are not tallying all of those days."

But the impact of even a few days out of the classroom is real, experts said.

"For low-income kids (absenteeism) has a particularly adverse effect," Chang said. "Often parents of low-income kids weren't highly educated, so when the kids are at home, it's not like they are in this literacy-rich environment."

Families living in poverty can be dealing with difficult issues -- underemployment, hunger, insecure housing -- so getting students to school can slip down the priority list and seem like an added burden.

"I think it's really a matter of folks who don't take advantage of support, who are living a little bit on the edge," Hendrickson said. "Possibly, in some families, they weren't educated themselves, so education may not be the most important thing in their lives right now. Keeping students in school may not be the issue, they might have other priorities."

Missing even a few days of school can make a difference in a child's academic success, according to a new analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The study found that 56 percent of eighth-graders who earned advanced reading scores in 2011 had perfect attendance in the month before the test, compared with only 39 percent of students who performed below the basic level.

"The students obviously need to build a foundation of knowledge," Hendrickson said. "That is happening every single day in class."

State rules for addressing chronic truancy have been tightened in recent years, putting more emphasis on intervention with families earlier in the process.

After three unexcused absences, a letter outlining state truancy laws is required to be sent home. An additional absence prompts a family conference with school officials. At the fifth unexcused absence, the third level of discipline requires the student and parents to attend an attendance hearing with district officials and in some cases, law enforcement.

"We're trying to intervene before it becomes an ingrained habit," said Lynn Garric, Safe Schools project director for the Sonoma County Office of Education.

In 2011-12, 19 school districts across Sonoma County sent out 5,789 so-called "letter number ones" to students who had three unexcused absences. The number of students who skipped again and required a second letter and parent conference fell by nearly 70 percent to 1,768.

"It's not a friendly letter," Garric said. "It says 'You are legally obliged to compel your child to attend school' and 'You are subject to prosecution.' "

"We are noticing the sooner in the school level and the lower the grade level, the more effective we can be in reducing ongoing absences and truancy," she said.

In Santa Rosa City Schools, the number of district-level truancy hearings has declined dramatically since 2007-08, when 206 School Attendance Review Board hearings were held. Those hearings are technically the last stop for chronic truants.

Last year, 53 such hearings were held, said George Valenzuela, Santa Rosa City School's attorney for child welfare and attendance.

The priority in recent years has been earlier intervention with the family, Valenzuela said. "Basically, we were referring a bunch of kids (to the District Attorney)," he said.

Now, district officials sit down with family members to get to the root of chronic absences.

"By the time you get to the level that I work, it's pretty serious, it's more than just missing school," he said. "A lot of time, it's a dysfunctional family. The kid might have had some issues with their health, physical or mental, or it's a broken home."

In many instances, by the time a full-fledged hearing with district officials and law enforcement representative is held, it's too late, according to Chang of Attendance Works.

"That SARB stuff is important, but it's at the last rung," she said. "There are a bunch of kids you could have reached earlier, much earlier. You can't afford to send all those kids to court."

Breaking the cycle of truancy represents more than additional class time or added revenue, Chang said.

"Taking your kid to school is a sign of hope," she said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit. blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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