SLO County’s 30 percent truancy rate for elementary school students — the second highest in the state — is disappointing and maybe even embarrassing, but no cause for panic.
Attendance is just one of several indicators of school performance, and in other areas — including tests scores and dropout rates — local schools consistently outperform the state as a whole.
Also, due to the way the state compiles truancy statistics, the recent report may not provide a totally accurate picture of how our county compares to others. County Schools Superintendent Julian Crocker suspects that stringent local attendance policies inflate the county’s number of unexcused absences.
For example, after students rack up a certain number of “sick days,” local policies require parents to provide a doctor’s note to verify any future illnesses before they are excused, while districts elsewhere may accept a parent’s note or phone call to “clear” all absences.
Keep in mind, too, that under the state’s definition, any student who has three or more unexcused absences or tardies in a year is considered truant.
That’s a strict definition — too strict, in our view.
No one would deny there is a serious problem when a student regularly misses a few days of school each month for no apparent reason. But to brand children “truant” if they are a half-hour late to school three or four times during the entire year is ridiculous.
The state would be better off focusing attention on students who are chronically absent, which is defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days. Those students are more likely to suffer academically and to drop out of school.
Not that we’re giving a complete pass to students who even occasionally miss school for no good reason. Those students, too, are at a disadvantage; even if they complete assignments at home, they miss out on class discussions, lunchtime soccer games, art projects and a host of other activities that make up the school day.
School districts also suffer, since every absence costs around $30 to $35 per day in average daily attendance revenue. That’s money that pays for teachers, books, school supplies, playground equipment.
We understand there are valid reasons for students to miss school. For instance, no one wants kids in school when they are sick and possibly contagious. But allowing students to stay home on account of a minor ache or pain or a small family emergency penalizes schools, it interferes with the students’ education and it sends a message that school isn’t really all that important.
We urge teachers and local school officials to continue to encourage consistent attendance, both by rewarding students with good attendance records and by intervening when attendance slips below acceptable levels.
And we urge parents to commit to getting their kids to school on time, every day, starting the first day of kindergarten — not because we’re worried about state statistics, but because it’s best for our schools and our children.