If a child is not in school, they're likely headed off track. While too many of our children - as many as 7.5 million across the country - miss nearly a month of school every year, there's a growing awareness here in Santa Cruz that commonsense solutions can address the problem of chronic absence.

There's power in working together to help all of our children in Santa Cruz County succeed in school. That's why I became involved with United Way of Santa Cruz County's Women In Philanthropy. Like all of you, Santa Cruz County is my home, and I am invested in improving all aspects of our county - from our school system, to strong businesses, to a thriving arts community. There are many women leaders like me volunteering through United Way and focusing our attention on our community's most pressing challenges. Today, I am asking you to join us in solving the critical issue of chronic absence amongst our children.

Why should you care? National research shows that one in 10 kindergartens and first-grade students are chronically absent, meaning that they miss 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days of instruction, becasue of excused and unexcused absences. Statewide, over 250,000 elementary school students are chronically absent; and a shocking 20,000 elementary school children missed 36 days or more of school in a single school year. We should all care because this is an issue that is solvable, and there are lots of simple and creative ways to intervene with kids and parents to help get kids back on track and back in the classroom.

The trend of chronic absence can start as early as kindergarten and continue through middle school all the way to high school, contributing to achievement gaps and the dropout rate. Currently  36 percent of third grade students in Santa Cruz Countyare proficient in reading. Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, and students who don't read well by that critical juncture are more likely to struggle in school. In addition, school districts lose money when kids miss school. The state's attendance-based school funding formula means that districts with low Average Daily Attendance lose millions of dollars every year in state funds. Locally, school districts in Santa Cruz County lost over $11 million in school funding due to absenteeism in the 2010-11 school year, or $316 per student.

The most critical step to getting children on a good attendance track is letting families know about the critical role they play in getting children to school on time every day. It's up to parents to build a habit of good attendance, enforce bedtimes and other routines and avoid vacations while school is in session. Teachers will reinforce these messages and, when they can, offer fun incentives for those students who show the best attendance or most improvement. Businesses, faith leaders and community volunteers can also convey this message. We can't afford to think of absenteeism as simply an administrative matter. Good attendance is central to student achievement and our broader efforts to improve schools. All of our investments in curriculum and instruction won't amount to much if students aren't showing up to benefit from them.

As a community we can all help and turn this issue around. I urge you to think about what you can do within your own family and your own neighborhood to help get more kids to school. I ask that you join me and my fellow Women In Philanthropy members - all of us can make a difference by helping students and families feel engaged in learning and help families overcome barriers to getting to school. Together, we can help ensure Santa Cruz County kids are in school to make every day count.

Julie Haff, Member - Women In Philanthropy
Retired, Superintendent of San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District
 

Women In Philanthropy Member, Julie Haff, Recognizes Attendance Awareness Month