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Absence Makes the School Go Ponder

Districts use novel ways to boost attendance, because the state sets funding accordingly.

December 29, 2005|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

California students are increasingly being begged, bribed and badgered to go to class, not only to improve their education but to boost the coffers of cash-strapped school districts that rely on state funding largely determined by daily attendance.

Temecula schools, which lose about $30,000 a day because of absences, are raffling a car, Disneyland vacations and iPods to pupils with near-perfect attendance. Santa Ana educators are encouraging teen moms to come to class by opening a day-care center. Other districts are urging parents who take their kids on vacation to reimburse them for lost state revenue.

"Districts [face] more pressure on them to perform, [but] they have less resources to do the same job," said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for the state superintendent of public instruction. "It's putting a lot of pressure on schools to look for every available dollar, to look for creative ways to squeeze every cent they're entitled to out of the system."

For decades, state funding for schools has been based on student attendance, not enrollment. To improve attendance, the state revised the formula in 1998 and no longer provides money for absences due to illness. Because about 80% of a district's budget is based on attendance, lost days add up quickly. It's estimated that absenteeism costs schools $30 to $40 per student per day, which adds up to millions of dollars annually in large districts.

Santa Ana Unified School District's 5% absentee rate costs it $91,000 a day, but the estimated $150,000 annual cost to operate a classroom remains unchanged whether it's full or not.

"You still have to pay the teacher and have the lights turned on," Supt. Al Mijares said.

The Temecula Valley Unified School District has faced $20 million in budget cuts over the last five years, including money for its elementary school band. But officials determined that if they increased their already high 96.5% attendance by 2%, they could reap an extra $2.6 million from the state each year. So this fall, they embarked on the "Count Me In!" campaign, which offers prizes -- including the chance to win a mountain bike or a car -- to families whose children have perfect or near-perfect attendance.

The campaign "is designed to get parents and students thinking: They can't learn if they're not sitting in that seat," said Danielle Clark, a district official who is spearheading the effort. "If it helps kids to learn or gets across to parents that the kids need to be in school to learn, then the money's just gravy."

The campaign has already had an impact. Attendance is up 0.22%, a small uptick that will nonetheless translate into $300,000 more from the state. Teachers say children are motivated by the competition.

"They're very excited," said Terri Hubbard, a third-grade teacher at French Valley Elementary. "And they're learning the importance of being in school, not just for attendance, but for learning."

Kyah Paschall, an 8-year-old who won a drawing for four tickets to the Mulligan Family Fun Center, added, "It made me feel really excited. I want to use it over the vacation."

The Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on a similar campaign last year, saw attendance improve and gained an extra $6.3 million from the state. However, district officials decided to forgo the time-consuming campaign this year and focus their energy on beefing up programs targeting habitual truants and their families, said Stephanie Brady, a district spokeswoman.

In Redondo Beach, where the school district lost $1.2 million last year because of absences, parents are urged to think hard before allowing their children to stay home from school. When scheduling doctors' visits, parents are asked to make appointments after 10:30 a.m. so their children can be counted at morning attendance. Parents who pull children out of school for vacation are asked to write the district a check for $29.24 a day.

Interim Supt. Bob Paulson hopes to start an incentive program similar to Temecula's next year. He also plans to send parents information about how long chickenpox and other common childhood ailments are contagious.

"Some parents are just embarrassed. They think, 'He's still got scabs on him; is he contagious or not?' If he's had four days scabbed over and if you're comfortable, send the kid to school," Paulson said. "Public education needs all the bucks it can get."

Other districts are offering special accommodations to students with unique needs, such as new teenage mothers, while taking a tougher stand against chronic truants.

In January, Santa Ana schools will launch an effort to cut down on unexcused absences. That includes hiring a truant officer who will hit the streets looking for students who should be in class. These students, as well as those facing expulsion, will be brought to the district's new truancy center to complete schoolwork and have their academic and social needs assessed by counselors. Local businesses are being asked to call campus police if they see children during school hours.

The district also will open a child-care and learning center for teenage mothers, allowing them to attend class.

The moves are intended to improve students' education as well as the district's financial bottom line.

"The fact is that students cannot learn if they are not in school," Mijares said. And "if students are in school, then you're maximizing state [money]. That is very necessary for today's public schools."

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