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A Holiday Surcharge for L.A. Schools: As Immigrant Families Leave the Country for an Early Christmas, Thousands of Kids Go Missing From Classrooms, Costing City Millions in Revenue

By Esmeralda Fabián Romero | December 18, 2018

A student at Telfair Elementary, where all 700 students received a toy and a visit from Santa Claus on Dec. 7.(LAUSD on Twitter)

This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report

Winter break was still almost two weeks away when a parent came into Principal Adan Martínez’s office to tell him he was taking his child out of school that day and wouldn’t be back until January.

“It started today! One of our students left in the middle of the school day to go to Mexico to visit family. That’s eight and a half days of classroom time the student is going to miss,” said Martínez, principal at El Dorado Avenue Elementary in Sylmar.

The child’s teacher and other school staff asked the father to reconsider, but he said the trip was unavoidable.

The long period of absences around winter break “is barely starting,” Martínez said during the first week of December. “This is just the first student, but as we get into next week, attendance will start dropping and dropping.”

And it happens every year, said Martínez, who has been the school’s principal for the past six years.

December can be a kind of Grinchmas for schools, particularly in the immigrant communities of Los Angeles. Nearly three-quarters of L.A. Unified’s students are Latino, and roughly a fourth are children of immigrants. When families leave for extended holiday vacations, students lose learning time that they may not recover. For the school district, thousands of days of lost instruction mean millions of dollars in revenue loss. And the district’s own projections for the next two years show the problem will continue to worsen.

Last year, on the Friday before the start of the winter break, the district registered more than 54,500 absences, or a 10.8 percent absence rate across all schools in Los Angeles, according to district data provided to LA School Report. On each day of the week before the winter break and the week after, at least 20,000 students missed the entire day of school.

The prevalence of students missing class around the holidays is part of a bigger overall problem at LA Unified — the percentage of students who are chronically absent continues to increase.

Hedy Chang, founder and director of Attendance Works, a national- and state-level initiative aimed at addressing chronic absences — a term she coined — said kids missing school around the holidays is a problem in all schools, particularly among Latino immigrant families because “they’re trying to weigh many things at the same time. They want to be connected with their families back home, they want their kids to connect to their home language, but they have to weigh that against the consequences. But we have to help them understand and brainstorm some options with them,” Chang said.

“There are many issues coming into play for these families, especially under the Trump administration. But there’s also the issue of those families not even getting back to the country,” Chang said. “Schools and communities have to work together talking to families about how this issue affects their child’s ability to achieve their hopes and dreams.”

How one school is affected

Of El Dorado’s 480 students, 94 percent are Latinos, and many of them come from immigrant families who wait for the holidays to return to their hometowns, which means embarking on a long trip for which apparently three weeks is not enough. Even with school ending Dec. 14 and not resuming until Jan. 7, families still leave early and come back late, Martínez said.

Martinez says that drop in attendance is “highly impactful” for his school.

“Students miss out on the daily instruction — every day counts. When they’re out even one day, it takes so long for them to get caught up with what they missed. Around this time of the year — end of first semester — teachers are trying to weigh where students are and how much progress they made. So when they are out, they cannot do that, they can’t compare, they can’t monitor their progress and it becomes impactful. It really does.”

Even though El Dorado has a 73 percent excellent attendance rate — which is higher than the district’s goal of 70 percent — the winter break absences will add to the 822 instructional days that have already been lost in the first three months of this school year, said Martínez, who said this represents about $56,000 in lost funding.

“The district is supporting us by providing us the knowledge to keep up the attendance, sharing strategies to improve attendance, but I need to get the message out to families just to stress how important attendance is for their children,” Martínez said. “That way they can make attendance a priority.”

Fighting chronic absences

In October, the district’s Office of the Superintendent and the Division of Health and Human Services reported that the district’s goal is to keep chronic absenteeism at 9 percent or less. Last year, the district had a 14.5 percent chronic absence rate, meaning about 70,000 students missed 15 or more days of school. That totals more than 1 million days of lost instruction last year — and 1 million days of lost funding.

Despite concerted efforts, attendance problems are growing worse in LA Unified. In the past three years, the number of schools that had an “excellent” attendance rate — meaning fewer than 30 percent of their students missed more than seven days of school — has dropped, from 70 percent in 2015-16 to 67 percent last year. Middle and high schools are particularly struggling with attendance. The school with the highest chronic absenteeism rate in the district last year was Horace Mann UCLA Community School, at 41.6 percent. It serves sixth through 10th grades in a dense South Los Angeles neighborhood not far from where the L.A. riots erupted 25 years ago.

Read more: A model for change in South Los Angeles: UCLA steps in to rescue a struggling middle school

Attendance is a top priority for the district for next school year. According to a report by the LA Unified Advisory Task Force issued last year, the district had budgeted for a chronic absent rate of 11 percent in 2016-17, but in reality it was 14.6 percent, so the impact of not achieving the target rate was approximately $20 million in lost revenue. It pointed out that if every child in LA Unified attended one more day of school, the district would have approximately $30 million more to invest in classrooms.

Last year, as changes to the school calendar were debated, the district projected that absences during the week before winter break would increase in the next two years and cost the district $10.3 million.

An LA Unified spokeswoman explained that because every school receives additional funding under the Local Control Funding Formula, it is hard to know exactly how much every school loses for each student’s absence. Chang also said that in California the “complex finance rules” make it hard to estimate the average cost of student missing one day of school. But in September 2016, the district released a presentation showing that based on the average daily attendance in 2014-15, the revenue loss per absence was $51.59 per student per day.

Every day counts

It’s not just the students who are absent who suffer the consequences. Absences place an added burden on teachers, and even the students who don’t miss school feel the impact.

“When students miss out on instructional time, that means teachers have to make up or repeat some of the instruction for those students, and they have to differentiate that in the classroom, so that is very, very difficult for our teachers and for our principals, especially when they’re trying to move instruction forward and making sure that all students have the same skills level,” said Michelle Castelo, director of pupil services for the district.

Castelo explained that for every day of instruction missed due a school absence, it takes up to three days to make up that instructional time. “That’s how much students struggle when they’re back,” particularly in secondary grades. “Right before the winter break, typically these are days when they take finals, because is the end of our first semester, so if they miss these days, they miss their finals, so the impact is huge.”

Laura Baz, mother of a ninth-grader at Grover Cleveland Charter High School, a district-run affiliated charter, believes Latinos need to recognize the value of consistent school attendance.

She has family in her hometown of Mexico City, but she says she has never gone on a trip at the expense of her son missing school. In fact, she says her son has a record of perfect attendance since first grade.

“It’s about values. We have to teach our children that being at school every day and on time is a value, just like being respectful and being responsible for attending school every day is a value,” she said in Spanish. “We need to teach them the importance of being in school every day since the early days, because we see that the higher rates of absences are among students in preschool and kindergarten.”

District data show that 1 in 4 kindergartners misses 15 or more days of school each year.

“For Latinos, our culture is very much about values, so then we need to include this in our set of values,” said Baz, who is on a committee to improve attendance in her school. “Teaching them about the importance of attendance is a critical part of our kids’ formation. Yes, it’s our responsibility as parents taking our kids to school every day and on time, but it is also our responsibility to make them value their education and what they learn in school so they feel responsible to be in school every day.”

At least 40 percent of California school districts and charter schools in grades K-8 have higher rates of chronic absenteeism. Nationwide, nearly 8 million students are chronically absent from school each year.

“We definitely understand the winter holidays is a great time to spend time with family, but at the same time, every day in school counts and every day is important and they have three weeks to be able to do that,” Castelo said.

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