San Luis Obispo County ranks as the second highest among California’s 58 counties in 2011-12 for truancies in elementary schools, exceeded only by Calaveras County in Northern California, a report issued by the state attorney general shows.
San Luis Obispo County may have made the top of the list because of stringent local policies that define excused absences, county Superintendent Julian Crocker said — not because more students are skipping school here.
Attorney General Kamala Harris has characterized truancy in elementary schools as a state crisis that has a $1.4 billion impact on school districts because state funding is tied to attendance.
In the 2011-12 school year, 30 percent of elementary students, or 5,712 students, in San Luis Obispo County were either absent or late to school by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse at least three times in a school year, the state reported.
“California is facing an attendance crisis, with dire consequences for our economy, our safety, and our children,” Harris wrote in the report released Monday. “Truancy and other chronic absence occur in elementary schools across the state, at rates that are deeply troubling.”
In San Luis Obispo County, truancy rates for all grades K-12 have consistently hovered above the state average for the past three years.
There were 422,039 empty seats in county classrooms during the 2012-13 school year, averaging about 12 absences per student.
Thirty-seven percent of local students were truant in 2011-12, compared to 28 percent in the state. That number grew from 34 percent in 2010-11 and 35 percent in 2009-10.
The percentage for 2012-13 was not available Tuesday.
“From a schools standpoint, when a student is not in school it doesn’t matter if it is excused or unexcused; the point is they are not there to learn,” Crocker said. “To me the larger focus needs to be on attendance in general and getting students in school as much as possible.”
Crocker said the state law outlines categories for excused absences such as illness, family emergency and personal reasons but does not specify when a note from a doctor is required. The result, he said, is that some districts classify excused and unexcused absences differently.
Students in San Luis Obispo County must provide a doctor’s note in order to have an excused absence for illness.
“In our county, we have tightened up those definitions over the last several years,” Crocker said.
The reason for doing that is simple: It is a way of encouraging school attendance.
Once a student misses three days of school, it generates a letter to parents from the school district office classifying the student as truant.
“That gets parents’ attention,” Crocker said.
Harris points out in her report that truancy can lead to long-term effects and that younger students who miss school are more likely to later struggle academically and drop out of school.
“Lacking an education, these children are more likely to end up unemployed and at risk of becoming involved in crime, both as victims and offenders,” according to the report.
Crocker said that the county’s dropout rate remains low compared to the state average.
In 2011-12, the dropout rate was 7.6 percent in San Luis Obispo County, compared to 13.1 percent in the state, he said.
“This is not a new issue for us,” Crocker said. “We have devoted a considerable effort at early grades to try and identify factors that might lead them to drop out later on.”