By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
Chronic absenteeism in Laguna Beach schools rose to 11 percent in the last school year, up from 9 percent the year before. That rate outpaces the absence rate in neighboring districts, though it falls just short of the statewide average.
In the Newport Mesa Unified School District, letters are sent to families when students fall into the “at-risk” category of 5 percent absenteeism, spokeswoman Annette Franco said. In the last school year, Newport Mesa’s rate of chronic absenteeism was 8 percent. Saddleback Valley reported 6.7 percent chronic absenteeism, while Irvine Unified’s rate was 4.2 percent, district spokespeople confirmed. Statewide, 12 percent of students are chronically absent.
In a school board presentation Tuesday, Aug. 22, Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Alysia Odipo outlined a strategy intended to reduce student absenteeism, one of several accountability measures that districts are now required to report to state educators.
According to the California Educational Code, a chronic absentee is a “pupil who is absent on 10 percent or more of the school days in the school year.” Last year, El Morro Elementary recorded the district’s highest percentage of chronic absences, at 14.4 percent. Next was Laguna Beach High, with 11.6 percent.
LBHS starts the school year on Tuesday, Sept. 5 under the new leadership of Jason Allemann, who replaces Chris Herzfeld. Herzfeld stepped down as LBHS principal at the school year’s end and sought a teaching post in the district. As of, July 20, though, he resigned and accepted a position in another school district, said spokeswoman Leisa Winston, who did not specify the type of assignment. The Indy reported in June that Herzfeld lacked a current teaching credential.
Odipo said the district’s four schools are developing plans to address chronic absenteeism. A presentation to the board is planned for Nov. 11.
“Students must attend school regularly to benefit from what is taught there… lost instructional time exacerbates dropout rates and achievement gaps,” the authors of “Absences Add Up,” wrote after examining 2013 national testing data.
Odipo echoed that conclusion and said the importance of time in the classroom will be stressed throughout the year in multiple ways.
District employees are already working to build an automated early warning system, Odipo said. Such a system could identify potential problems before they develop into patterns, she said.
Though Laguna’s absenteeism rate is below the California average, Odipo expressed the district’s eagerness to improve its attendance record. Schools will soon be graded on their chronic absenteeism rates through the California School Dashboard, but those assessments are still taking place.
In February, the California Department of Education previewed its School Dashboard, a school accountability tool for the public on the agency’s website. In the initial rollout in March, the Dashboard offered data in certain categories. A later version, promised for fall, will include other indicators such as chronic absenteeism and college/career readiness.
The Dashboard was designed to assess school performance in several areas and replace the state’s previous system, the Academic Performance Index (API), which operated from 1999-2013.
Under the API, schools’ academic standings were ranked by a single figure. Ratings ranged between 200 and 1000, but 800 was considered the target number for all schools. In 2013, the final year of the API, Laguna Beach High’s score was 897.
Under the new Dashboard system, colored pie-charts will display the state’s evaluation of various indicators. The spring 2017 report for LBUSD shows the district’s performance in five areas. In language arts (3-8), mathematics (3-8), and graduation rate (9-12), the district earned five pie sections and the color blue, indicating the highest possible score. For English learner progress (K-12) and suspension rate (K-12), the district received four sections and the color green, showing that state standards are being met.
This fall, when chronic absentee evaluations appear on the Dashboard website, Laguna’s weakness will be visible. What lures Laguna students away from their desks? Whatever the cause, Odipo says a solution is needed.
“Each day that a student misses school is an opportunity lost for learning,” she said.