Franklin Elementary School (File photo)

In response to increased absenteeism in schools, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) officials are discussing options to make sure kids are in class, including ramping up home visits and other outreach and support efforts.

Recently released data from the California Dashboard, a database compiled by the California Department of Education, classified chronic absenteeism rates as “high” in the district.

The Dashboard reported that 19.3% of kindergarten through eighth grade students in SMMUSD were chronically absent in 2022, meaning they missed 10% or more of the school year. Another district report, which included all K-12th grade students, showed the rate to be at 30% for the first half of the 2022-23 school year.

The Dashboard breaks data down by student subgroup and showed that chronic absenteeism was highest among foster youth and socioeconomically disadvantaged students, at 26.8% and 31.2% respectively.

Board of Education President Maria Leon-Vasquez said that an important aspect of addressing absenteeism among these students is getting to know them and their families and gaining a better understanding of their situation.

“I think it’s real crucial that we understand the issues at home because that will lead to how maybe the child is not doing well in school because of the home issues – sometimes we’re missing that piece and that’s a big piece,” she said at a recent board meeting in response to a presentation on the topic.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID 19, one tool the District used to do this was home visits. While these were significantly cut back during the pandemic, Director of Student Services Tara Brown said they are now slowly resuming and that community liaisons, administrators, and security officers will all help with these visits.

Jacqueline Mora, assistant superintendent of educational services for SMMUSD said bringing such measures back in greater force will have impacts beyond these groups as well.

“Whatever strategies we implement to target our foster youth are not just for foster youth, they will work and support all student groups,” she said. “So although we’re honing in and targeting foster youth because they’ve been identified, those practices will be implemented to support all students that are needing this assistance.”

Additional measures outlined by district staff include encouraging students to come early to school for free breakfast to get them there in time for class, increasing opportunities for communication between teachers and parents and working with the Children Youth and Family Collaborative to hold check-in meetings with students.

While Mora and board members acknowledged that the attendance issue is severe, they also expressed frustration at the fact that the data includes both un-excused and excused absences – making it more difficult to understand the actual extent of the problem and what really needs to be addressed and requiring further research.

“What we need to do as a district and as school sites is glean and look at who are our students and what are the real barriers,” Mora said. “If they’re out sick then we know ‘okay they’re out sick,’ but who are the students that are not coming to school just because there’s something and it’s not for illness, it’s not for something that’s excused – that’s where we focus our energy.”

Grace Adams

Grace Adams is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University where she studied Spanish and journalism. She holds a Master’s degree in investigative journalism from City, University of London. She has experience...