OUSD elementary school absenteeism: a slow-motion train wreck?

Rows of empty desks with sunlight streaming in from top right corner.

A guest post from parent Brandon Wall

The Oakland School Board spent a really solid chunk of time on chronic absenteeism at last week’s school board meeting—but it was focused on high schools. It definitely made sense for OUSD to initially focus efforts on our high schools as an outsized number of our oldest students were disengaged and/or disconnected from school during the 18 month in-person learning hiatus, and that’s where student absences have historically been highest.
That said, I worry that insufficient attention is being paid to our elementary schools.
Take a look at the data:

* 2018-19 regular attendance was impacted by the seven-day Oakland Teachers Strike
In other words, 20.5% (or 3,552) of our elementary students are currently severely chronically absent and have already missed 5+ days (out of a possible 23). The bar for moderate chronic absenteeism (>10%) is ~18 days for the *entire* year of ~180, so in the first month of school many our students have burned through a disproportionate share of their absences if they want to avoid finishing the school year as chronically absent. 
Chronic absenteeism is one of the main indicators on the CA schools dashboards for good reason: it’s highly correlated with a plethora of negative student outcomes and it has a direct correspondence to ADA and thus our district’s future public revenue. Left unchecked, it could have catastrophic consequences for student learning this year and fiscal vitality next year.
As before, I definitely want to acknowledge that we should expect absences to be higher this year because of covid-19, and the fact that we want students to stay home if they need to quarantine or if they are sick. However, there is a question as to how much higher student absences should be this year. Further, the disproportionality across different schools (as well as within schools by race/ethnicity and grade level) and comparisons to the OUSD covid case dashboard suggests that there is a lot of variation in how regularly students are attending school in Oakland even after controlling for differences in covid positive cases and community prevalence of coronavirus.
Things look really bad… but they are actually even worse than they look as absences are typically lowest at the beginning of the year, and rise as the year progresses. Right now, we are comparing the first month of school this year to full prior school years—except for 2019-20 where data was frozen in March 13th. Here is a graph of this phenomenon:

HT and thanks to Jonathon Stewart, formerly of the Oakland Core Data Collaborative, for these slides.
Is there any good news?!?
Thanks to OUSD’s investments in publicly accessible data and real-time reporting, families and community stakeholders have direct access to this information and can explore the data at their own schools and monitor progress.
We are still early in the school year so there is still time to course correct, and thankfully some research suggests that absences have the smaller negative effects when they are clustered or occur near the beginning of the school year.

Perhaps things will get better on their own as folks get more comfortable and acquainted with their schools? That’s an awfully big chance to take as it has serious implications for student learning, district finances, and public accountability.
What to do?
I’m trying to raise awareness and discuss next steps with folks at Crocker and a couple of other elementary schools, such Chabot, Sequoia, and Fruitvale. Thankfully, chronic absenteeism is well studied and there are well known, evidence-based interventions…

…but time might be running out.
In community,

Brandon Wall is the proud parent of two current and two future OUSD elementary school students. 13 months ago, he quit his job as a Data Scientist at EveryDay Labs in order to care for his kids and co-lead a distance learning pod, but they are all back in school as of Sept 1! He believes Oakland families should amplify their voices and leverage their privilege to ensure that every student in every Oakland neighborhood has access to joyful, academically excellent public schools that will prepare them to pursue the paths the choose and help us to create a more just world.

What do you think?

One thought on “OUSD elementary school absenteeism: a slow-motion train wreck?

  1. This article lost me with the reference to “well known, evidence based interventions.” Was the evidence gathered during year 2 of a national pandemic? Assuming not it is hard to imagine how relevant it’d be in the current situation. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of (a) parents keeping kids home extra out of an abundance of caution re: COVID; and (b) parents who are reluctant to take their kids to get the COVID PCR tests that would be needed for quick return to school after onset of cold symptoms. These point to need for public health interventions, not the typical historical educational responses to absenteeism.

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