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Truancy rates surge in San Luis Obispo County schools

Nearly one-third of students in San Luis Obispo County were considered truant last year.

Enough students to virtually fill the Cal Poly football stadium — 10,078 — were either absent or late to school without a valid excuse at least three times in the 2008-09 school year, exceeding the state average. And the number is growing.

The unexcused absences cost local school districts more than $925,000 last year and more than $4 million in the past five years.

Besides this increasing truancy rate, suspensions and expulsions have also grown during the past five years, a Tribune analysis found. There were 3,837 suspensions and 203 expulsions issued countywide last year, up 73 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

Concern about the number of students missing school prompted the county’s Children’s Services Network to create a task force in April to study the issue.

School officials, community agencies, law enforcement, the public Health Department and the District Attorney’s Office are collaborating to combat the problem — making it the first task force of its kind in the county.

“We all have a stake in this and we need to pool our resources and make a difference,” said John Elfers, senior program coordinator with the county Office of Education and co-chairman of the task force.

Elfers said that 15 percent of students countywide were considered chronically truant in the first half of last school year — missing 10 or more days of school.

Of the county’s four largest school districts, San Luis Coastal reported the highest such rate at 41 percent and Atascadero Unified School District the lowest at 21 percent.

San Luis Coastal administrators say that the district’s truancy rate is so high because of an increased effort to report it accurately.

“We take attendance very seriously,” said Ed Valentine, San Luis Coastal superintendent. “We know that every time a student misses class, there is a lost opportunity to learn. There are a variety of reasons why a student misses classes. We document them and report them because we want to know.”

Recurring themes include extended family vacations, lack of parental supervision and students who say they are simply bored by school.

Crime link

The impacts of truancy spread far beyond districts’ bottom line — contributing to delinquency and crime rates.

Some studies have found that students with truancy problems are more prone to substance abuse, teen pregnancy and crime.

In San Luis Obispo County, absenteeism is found in all social and economic backgrounds.

But school officials say that students of poverty, those without an adult role model and youth struggling with substance abuse are more likely to skip school. Likewise, students’ experience in school correlates directly to their attendance.

The same indicators exist for students who will likely be suspended or expelled.

School officials say that keeping students in school is essential to preventing those problems. “If a student is in school, they are not likely to be out doing drugs,” said Kathy Hannemann, assistant superintendent of student services for Atascadero Unified.

Her school district has worked over the years to reduce both the number of truancies and the number of students suspended or expelled.

The more students feel a connection with the school and the community, the more successful they will be, said Hannemann.

Facing the problems

School districts are trying to combat the problem in various ways.

Lucia Mar, the county’s largest district, is introducing a new policy to decrease the 103 expulsions handed out last year.

Now, students who get in trouble for drugs or alcohol for the first time are mandated to participate in a Teen Court. The program, presented by the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in Santa Maria, focuses on individual responsibility and decision-making through a trial before their peers, said Mike Miller, supervisor of at-risk services.

The district also used federal stimulus funds to replace school resource officers and bring drug-sniffing dogs onto high school campuses to deter students from bringing drugs, he said.

In Paso Robles, high school students starting this year will lose the right to attend popular activities like graduation and prom if they have more than 18 unexcused absences, said Paulette Pahler, director of student services. Younger students will be held back from end-of-year parties and field trips.

The district also created uniform discipline standards that detail the consequences of delinquent behavior and mailed the information to parents at the beginning of the year. In previous years, such decisions were made at the school level.

“Because of the district’s high discipline rate we want to help curb the problems and make kids more successful in school,” Pahler said, adding that a heightened awareness of the rules and consequences seems to have a positive impact.

Atascadero Unified started a similar policy correlating school activities to mandatory attendance last year and has found it successful, Hannemann said.

Atascadero has consistently maintained the lowest truancy rate among the county’s largest schools and has reduced the number of suspensions year over year.

“We operate on the philosophy that kids cannot learn unless they are in school,” Hannemann said. “Suspensions and expulsions are just one more way for a student to avoid being in school.”

Six years ago the district launched a campaign to make students and their parents aware of the importance of being in school.

A partnership was also created with the county Probation Department to work with families in a non-punitive way to help them resolve issues that lead to problem behavior and truancy. Family advocates are also available to help link parents with needed resources, she said.

Hannemann said it is a shared responsibility among educators, parents and students.

“We have a responsibility as educators to become more interesting and create alternatives for students who do not fit in the regular classroom,” said Hannemann.

By doing so, the school district has consistently lowered its suspensions each year and kept students in school.

“We really believe that we are responsible for our own students — to send a student away is sending a message that they are not wanted,” said Hannemann. “Many of these kids are already disconnected and disenfranchised — their parents aren’t involved, and they don’t have many friends.

“Why would we say that the school doesn’t want them either? What happens then?”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.

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