OUSD cuts attendance positions, despite nationwide ‘crisis’ in absenteeism
on August 10, 2022
Oakland Unified started the school year this week without its five network attendance liaisons, whose sole job was to keep kids coming to school, even as the district struggles to get a handle on absenteeism.
The School Board cut the jobs when it approved the 2022-23 budget on June 29. Weeks earlier, Ilene Fortune, a network attendance liaison who stood to be out of work, tried to impress upon the board that eliminating the positions would be detrimental to the goal of increasing attendance.
“To dismantle these jobs right now would be a huge mistake,” she said.
While five network attendance liaison positions have been eliminated, the district has replaced them with six system of support specialists, who deal with educational, behavioral, social-emotional and attendance issues. These specialists, according to OUSD spokesperson John Sasaski, will work across the district to support students.
“My understanding is that we wanted to have a more unified approach to serving all the needs of students, and the way it was before, kept the work a bit more siloed,” Sasaki said.
Average daily attendance is a significant component in how California schools receive state funding. If fewer students attend daily, fewer dollars flow to the district. Because fewer students were in school, staff reductions — including those related to attendance — were necessary, said Lisa Grant-Dawson, OUSD chief business officer.
Average daily attendance is calculated by dividing the total days of student attendance by the total days of instruction. OUSD has had a hard time keeping its ADA consistent, partly because of the pandemic, Grant-Dawson said.
During the pandemic, OUSD’s attendance-to-enrollment ratio dropped as low as 87%, notably lower than the 94% it was at before the pandemic, which was in line with most California districts, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Nearly 18% of OUSD students were chronically absent in the past school year — more than twice the percentage of chronically absent students in 2018-19, the district data dashboard shows.
“ADA is so important in its own nuance,” Grant-Dawson said. “It is about the finances, but more important, it’s about our students attending on a regular basis so that, therefore, they’re matriculating with the knowledge that they should be at each grade level.”
Fortune and her colleagues understood the importance of keeping kids in school. Network attendance liaisons were responsible for addressing chronic absenteeism, increasing ADA, and providing specialized solutions to attendance concerns. But with the district dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks for the past two years, their task has been harder, Fortune said.
“I think of it, this year with attendance or absences, as trying to fill up a bathtub if you don’t have the drain plugged in,” she said. “We know that one quarantine experience for a student, which would be 10 days, causes that student to be chronically absent. So we know that chronic absence is going to be really high.”
District officials are working to better understand the attendance data they have collected, so they can identify and address district-wide patterns, Grant-Dawson said.
The problem of declining attendance extends beyond Oakland. In a nationwide study on attendance patterns released in June, the nonprofit Attendance Works found that chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10% or more of the school year — has more than doubled since 2019.
“Our country is facing a school attendance crisis,” the organization concluded.
In OUSD, the school board’s controversial decision to close seven schools in the next two years could exacerbate the problem, parents against the closures have said. With their neighborhood schools closing, students at Parker K-8 and Community Day, which both closed in May, will have to travel farther to get to school, and some may need public transportation, which could lead to more days absent, the parents noted.
The school closures also will disrupt daily school routines, which could worsen declining attendance, said Catherine Cooney, Attendance Works’ spokesperson.
“And those routines can also create a sense of safety and security, especially during these chaotic times,” she added.
Attendance Works recommends that districts address attendance by using data to zero in on which students are chronically absent, and then building relationships between schools and those families to remove the barriers to attendance.
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