Education Activist Battles Oakland Students' Absenteeism
If you want your kids to succeed in school, they have to be in school every day with few exceptions. But too often parents -- and schools -- fail to realize how quickly absences are adding up and hurting students' performance.
Bay Area education advocate Hedy Chang was honored at the White House this week for her efforts to tackle chronic absenteeism among African-American students. The White House named her a "Champion of Change" for her work as director of a national initiative called Attendance Works, which aims to keep all kids in school.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: Ms. Chang, when you first started working with Oakland Unified, in particular, the district's own numbers showed African-American students were missing a lot more school than their white peers, as early as kindergarten. What were the reasons for that?
HEDY CHANG: What we're seeing with the data on African-American kids, is it's not all African-American kids, but it's especially concentrated among young African-American kids living in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, so particularly West Oakland and sort of a corridor going through East Oakland. And I think it's where there are huge barriers related to poverty. There's poor health, there's asthma issues, there's neighborhood violence. But I also think that there may be another dynamic going on -- is that when kids don't come to school, how do people interpret that? Do they think that a child's absence is because the parents don't care? Or is that a sign of kind of taking action?
MARTIN: In Oakland, for example, you felt that better tracking was an important part of the solution. What needed to happen that wasn't happening?
CHANG: So, one of the problems is we only look at truancy, which is only unexcused absences, and that's when people don't know a kid's missing school. When kids are very young, you can have a lot of absences add up, especially if you've got these health issues and transportation issues. The parents are calling in and saying, "My kid's not going to be there." But because we don't even have state laws about looking at absences for any reason, we were only actually taking action if we thought kids were unexcused. So there were young kids with tons of absences, but no one was doing anything. We know from Oakland data, if a kid was chronically absent in first grade, their chances of chronic absence by sixth grade are five times higher. Three years of chronic absence in elementary school -- it's 18 times higher levels of chronic absence in sixth grade. And it's certainly associated with lower test scores and higher suspension rates in sixth grade.
MARTIN: How is the project at Oakland Unified going now?
CHANG: Oakland is leading the nation. This is not something anyone's done well. But Oakland has the courage to take the data, look at the data, look at how it looks for African-American kids different from other kids, start to bring community members in to take a look at how do we improve this. The biggest gist is that they set goals around how to they improve attendance. They have a deep partnership with the mayor and with other agencies, with the district attorney who've all been coming together saying, "How do we build a culture of attendance? How do we use data to identify systemic barriers to attendance and turn it around?" Now it's just, you know, the results aren't quite there yet. We have, certainly, inspirational schools who show what can be done, but I think we'll start to get district-wide improvements soon because now we're finally putting in place the practice and the strategies that will take it to scale.
MARTIN: How does having this White House recognition help your cause?
CHANG: So it's interesting, being an Asian-American and being nominated for an award that's about improving African-American educational outcomes. It sends a message that all of us need to care. And it's all of our responsibility to make sure there isn't an opportunity gap, so we don't have an achievement gap, and this award gives me a place that I can say, "I am part of that movement." And that issue of chronic absence's data point that we don't even have federal policy mandating we track attendance every day so we can know when kids are missing too much school so they're at risk. We've got to change that.
MARTIN: Hedy Chang, thank you.
CHANG: It's been my pleasure.
MARTIN: Hedy Chang directs Attendance Works, a national initiative aimed at improving student success by reducing absenteeism.