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Chronic Absence Forum

Prepared remarks by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson on May 19, 2011, during the Taking Attendance Seriously: Promoting School Success by Preventing Chronic Absence Forum in Sacramento.

I'd like to welcome everyone to the "Taking Attendance Seriously: Promoting School Success by Preventing Chronic Absence" forum.

I'd also like to take a moment to thank some people in the audience, including Ted Lempert (President of Children Now). I want to especially welcome my predecessor Jack O'Connell here today. Also, Brad Strong, Senior Director of Education Policy for Children Now, a leader in the Chronic Absence and Attendance Partnership, which is cosponsoring the forum. Welcome to Hedy Chang, Director of Attendance Works—and a driving force behind this event (also author of Present, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades). Welcome to Dr. Bob Balfanz, of the Johns Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools—one of the leading researchers in the nation on this issue.

I also want to recognize the Chronic Absence and Attendance Partnership for all their work to coordinate this event. I want to thank School Innovation & Advocacy and School Loop that is a cohost and provided financial support for this event; as well as all our sponsors; and our CDE staff: David Kopperud, Barbara Pomerantz, Gordon Jackson, and Craig Cheslog. Also, thanks to all of you—the superintendents, administrators, principals and teachers—for making the time to come today.

We are here today because—for all the focus on school accountability—there's a very basic fact that is often overlooked: Even the best teacher can't help students who don't make it to school. Just as a meteorologists save lives by sounding an early warning about hurricanes, tornadoes, floods—we need an early warning system for students who are chronically absent—and whose academic career is in jeopardy. Today's conference will help us all understand how chronic absence affects students—starting from the earliest grades—and what we can do about it.

From our presenters today you'll hear about the impact of chronic absences on the achievement gap, how chronic absences are an early predictor of students dropping out, and how schools can partner with parents and community members to address this critical problem.

Chronic truancy is widespread in California. In Oakland, 17 percent of kindergartners are chronically absent. In Los Angeles, kindergarten absentee rate is 22.7 percent—identical to the absentee rate for ninth graders.

The negative consequences for students are obvious—but there are financial consequences for school districts as well. If the 5,421 chronically absent Oakland students last year had attended just six more days, the district would have received more than $1 million in additional state ADA (average daily attendance).

The good news is we are getting smarter about how to track chronic absences. At CDE (California Department of Education), we are offering districts the opportunity to take part in an Early Warning and Intervention System Pilot Project—at no cost to districts or schools. The project is aimed at middle schools— the pilot is adapted from the National High School Center's Early Warning System tool for high schools. The pilot helps identify students most at risk of dropping out—so that schools can intervene earlier and get students back on track. We hope to scale this project up to develop a statewide early warning and intervention system and provide districts with an opportunity to share their best practices.

Schools cannot succeed alone. Ultimately, this is not just about what our schools and educators can do, but what communities must do working together. Parents need to be involved and engaged. Community partners can play a role. So can law enforcement. We can't afford NOT to work together.

With all the budget and financial challenges schools face—it is easy for this issue to get lost. I commend all of you again for taking the time to be here today—and for the teachers and classified personnel who carefully record attendance data. You and the work you do are essential to keeping students where they need to be—in school and learning!

There's a growing awareness of the need to monitor and attend to chronic absences are signs of very real progress—but still just the beginning. Monitoring and identification are only the first steps. Last year, Senator pro Tem Steinberg succeed in having SB 1357 signed into law. It sought to create an Early Warning System and to include attendance as part of the CALPADS (California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System) reporting. It is a bill I supported in the Legislature. I continue to support the concept. The measure does include language that using CALPADS "shall not be implemented unless federal funds are appropriated specifically for the purposes of this section." I look forward to greater federal and state support for this effort.

Questions: Communications Division | communications@cde.ca.gov | 916-319-0818 
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