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To combat truancy, California should follow Compton's lead

On any given weekday, 1 in 5 K-6 students is AWOL in California
Truancy bills in Sacramento are meant to take Compton school attendance gains statewide
Any attempt to turn around California's troubled public school system must address the truancy

How to improve California's education system is a challenge that has long divided state and local elected officials, education advocates, teachers and parents. One thing is certain, however: No solution to our schools' problems will make an ounce of difference if students are out on the street or at home when they should be in class. Any attempt to turn around our troubled public school system must address the truancy problem.

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris brought truancy into clear focus in 2013 with a report that found that about 1 million California elementary school students were truant in the 2012-13 school year. In Los Angeles County, 166,469 elementary school students were truant; that's more than 20% of those enrolled. Put another way, on any given day, 1 in 5 K-6 students are missing out on an education guaranteed by the state Constitution.

You might ask, what's significant about a few missed days of school to a third-grader? But the long-term ramifications are very serious. Children who are truant in elementary school are far less likely to graduate from high school, and by extension, more likely to end up unemployed and committing crimes. Indeed, state data show that 75% of California's prison inmates are high school dropouts.

In addition, truancy has tremendous economic implications for our communities. School funding is directly tied to attendance rates, which means that California's schools are leaving dollars on the table — according to Harris' report, $1.4 billion to be exact. The indirect costs to our communities are even greater. The price tag of truancy in terms of lost productivity, lost taxes and in criminal justice spending is estimated at

$46 billion annually.

Last year, Compton addressed its truancy crisis, with impressive results. The Compton Unified School District achieved a 1.47% increase in daily attendance. That may seem like a small increase, but that jump translated to an additional 57,326 days in school for Compton's students and an increase of $2 million in state funding for the district.

The effort began in 2011, with a new strategy to improve communication about attendance between teachers and parents. School staff reached out to families with truancy notifications and parent conferences. A key component was detecting truancy patterns early on. The district's new Web-based attendance system, which allows for real-time monitoring of truancy, made this possible.

If these measures can work in Compton, they can work in other California cities. It's going to take a concerted effort from legislators, school administrators, teachers, parents and local law enforcement. That's why the package of truancy bills in the state Senate and the Assembly is a smart, and necessary, investment in our schools.

These bills would strengthen efforts by Compton's and other school districts to come up with effective local solutions to truancy and chronic absenteeism. They would also help schools across the state meet the requirements of the governor's Local Control Funding Formula, which requires schools to track attendance and chronic absence.

AB 1866 would fund the modernization of the state's absenteeism tracking system, allowing all local school districts to do what Compton did: accurately track attendance and build early warning systems to identify and assist at-risk children. And as a statewide system, it would also allow for efficient access to students' attendance history as they move from district to district.

AB 1643 would require each county to create a school attendance review board. In Compton, we've been helped by the collaboration of administrators, educators, parents and other parties addressing truancy through the use of community as well as school resources. These review boards would institutionalize that effort and support wraparound services for parents struggling to keep their children in school.

And there are two "reporting" bills. AB 1672 would require the review boards to complete annual reports, which would help Compton and other districts identify best practices for truancy reduction. SB 1007 would require the attorney general and the state Department of Education to issue an annual report so that what is happening at the local level can be assessed year over year.

Finally, AB 2141 would require that district attorneys communicate with school districts on the outcome of extreme cases: the "truancy referrals" that review boards make to law enforcement. This bill would guarantee baseline information sharing and help school officials determine what strategies are most effective at improving attendance.

Truancy is not the only issue facing California's schools, but it's an important one. And if Compton is any indication, we can do better. These bills aren't about measuring student or teacher performance. They're not about punishing parents or schools. They are about giving educators real, practical tools to get and keep our children in class. They are a critical investment in California's public safety and economic well-being. Most important, they help fulfill the promise made to every child in California's Constitution: the right to an education.

Aja Brown is the mayor of Compton.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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