Missing Kids: Why 1 in 5 Students at This District Were Chronically Absent

1 out of 5 students were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year as families struggled with financial instability and lack of childcare at home

Yerba Buena High School in San Jose is part of the East Side Union High School District. (Loan-Anh Pham)

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One East San Jose school district is looking at how post-pandemic challenges are contributing to students skipping school, as chronic absenteeism rises in the local education system.

One out of five students in the East Side Union High School District were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year, missing class as families struggled with financial instability and lack of child care at home. A student is chronically absent if they miss more than 10%, or 18 days, of the school year.

The East San Jose school district had an absenteeism rate of 20.4% last school year. Rates for low-income students spiked to 28.6% in 2021-22 from 21.9% in the 2018-19 school year. Absenteeism rates are also high among foster youth and homeless students in the district, at 47.6% and 43.1% respectively. There are more than 21,000 students enrolled in East Side Union High School District’s 19 high schools and adult education programs.

The absenteeism rate for East San Jose students is more than double the county’s average of 8.8% in 2018-19, right before the pandemic forced distance learning.

The problem is tied to students’ lived experiences battling housing insecurity and financial instability, said Maryam Adalat, director of student services.

“There’s a lot of barriers to attendance,” said Adalat at a recent school board meeting. “We’re noticing that a lot of our teens are providing child care for their younger siblings because parents are having to work two, three jobs. We’re also realizing that some students are having to work to contribute toward the household.”

The district partners with community organizations like the Bill Wilson Center and New Hope for Youth to alleviate challenges for families through child care or mental health services, while also outlining individualized plans to improve attendance, Adalat said. Families still contend with the region’s high cost of living, risking displacement as costs for child care can add up to more than $20,000 per year for one child alone.

Chronic absenteeism is hitting school districts across Santa Clara County. San Jose Unified School District, the county’s largest school district with more than 30,000 students, has a double-digit absenteeism rate this school year of 17%—and had rates that hit 25% over the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools continue to grapple with the problem, with officials suggesting lingering pandemic infections and mental health impacts as potential factors. The pandemic disproportionately impacted low-income students, which contributed to lower test scores and greater learning loss.

“Pandemic-related challenges that many (district) students faced intensified many other typical challenges, including financial hardships,” J. Manuel Herrera, an East Side Union High School District board member, told San José Spotlight. “All of these challenges impact student attendance because they require students to sacrifice time and effort that interferes with their schooling.”

District officials hope to stem the tide of chronic absenteeism by addressing the issue before students step foot on a high school campus.

East Side Union High School District aims to connect with other districts before students enter high school, reaching out to middle school students to understand their current challenges.

Academic struggles in middle school can translate to higher amounts of absences, said Teresa Marquez, associate superintendent of educational services. That in turn impacts academic success and the ability to graduate on time. The district is looking toward summer programs to acclimate incoming students to high school curriculum and schedules.

“It’s looking at establishing those relationships in our (middle) schools, so that we can start with those incoming freshmen that we already know are going to need that extra support and that extra care,” Marquez said.

Relationships also need to be established with parents, who play a major role in student attendance, Herrera said.

“Working with our incoming freshmen is crucial, because good attendance habits need to be established early,” Herrera told San José Spotlight. “As a district we need to make sure we provide the information and the tools so that students and parents understand how to navigate the school system when it comes to reporting absences and communicating with school personnel to seek help as needed.”

This article was originally published by the San José Spotlight and is published here in partnership with CalMatters.

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