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California School District Finds a Way to Bring Absent Kids Back to Class

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Bilingual classroom materials hang on a wall.
Bilingual exercises hang on a wall in a classroom at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The number of California kids missing too many school days tripled — from 12% to 30% — during the pandemic, and school districts have been searching for ways to bring them back.

The staff at Alvord Unified School District, which serves roughly 16,000 students in Riverside County, turned to technology to help engage with families after staff got overwhelmed tracking attendance and mailing truancy letters to those with three or more unexcused absences.

“They were spending a large amount of time just doing clerical work that didn’t allow them to actually do what needed to be done,” said Ian Fish, who oversees attendance as the district’s assistant director of student services.


So, at the beginning of the 2022–23 school year, the district hired an outside firm called SchoolStatus to track attendance data and communicate with parents via texts, emails and postcards in multiple languages. Fish said it has freed up his staff to make phone calls or home visits to better understand the reasons behind the absences and offer help such as counseling or connecting families to social services.

“Rather than say ‘what’s going on? You’re going to get a citation,’ why not call and say ‘hey, we miss having [your child] in school. How can we get him here? What can we do to support him?’ I think that’s why we’ve seen some progress over the last two years in terms of our attendance,” Fish said, adding that the district’s chronic absenteeism rate improved by 10 percentage points.

School districts across California are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in efforts to detect chronically absent students, or to hire firms to do that work for them, because the amount of state funding they receive depends on enrollment and attendance.

Alvord Unified pays School Status $240,0000 annually for its service, using state funding for post-pandemic learning recovery. The company said in a report released Tuesday that school districts that use its attendance management strategies saw a 22% reduction in chronic absenteeism between the 2021–22 to 2022–23 school years.

“We like to say we’re creating a culture of achievement, starting with creating a culture of showing up,” said Grace Spencer, an attendance expert at SchoolStatus. “It starts with notifying parents in a timely, consistent manner, with positive messaging in their family’s home language.”

The messages may start with a notification about how many days their child missed school, how much learning time they missed compared to their classmates, and how students who are chronically absent are likely to struggle academically.

If the absences continue, the system will step up its warnings but it tries to focus on encouraging and celebrating attendance, she said.

“Postcards that say ‘we love it when you’re in school. We miss you when you’re not here.’ It’s that personal touch [saying] we want you in school, and school is important,” she said.

Sending text messages and postcards with language that “stresses common purpose and is more warm than judgmental” might be an effective, low-cost solution to chronic absenteeism, said Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee.

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However, he said the SchoolStatus report might be overstating the impact of its service since it doesn’t compare the change in chronic absenteeism rate for districts that weren’t using its services.

“Messaging is an incredibly promising, important, and underutilized strategy for reducing chronic absenteeism, but I can’t say that this analysis credibly establishes the impact of this service,” Dee said.

He said he’d like to see the state make this kind of messaging system available to all districts to help them connect with students and their families.

“It is a lot to ask any one district to kind of create the system themselves or contract for themselves, so I think that’s one of the key ways in which California and other states are failing to address the enduring problem we have with our academic recovery from the pandemic,” he said.

The California Department of Education didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.

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