In Partnership with The 74

Easy money for LA schools: Get every kid to class one more day a year and generate $30 million

Mike Szymanski | December 8, 2017



Wendy Greuel, left, acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian, and Austin Beutner, task force co-chair, discuss attendance.

*UPDATED

It’s a daunting task to try to figure out how LA Unified can save money, but an advisory group came up with a surprising statistic:

If the district can get every student in the district to come to school at least one more day, then it will be ahead by $30 million because of the money schools get for attendance.

That’s one of the suggestions the LAUSD Advisory Task Force is giving the district in a series of deep-dives, and its latest findings will be presented at Tuesday’s school board meeting by acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian. Formed earlier in the year by Superintendent Michelle King, who is on an extended medical leave, the task force is continuing its work of examining thorny problems such as test scores, low-performing schools, budget hurdles, and other challenges facing the district. Its proposals address attendance issues brought up two years ago by the Independent Financial Review Panel, which warned about shrinking enrollment in the district and its fiscal impacts.

Read the task force’s recommendations here.

“We want to work with the district rather than get involved with the politics of the district,” said Austin Beutner, co-chair of the LAUSD Advisory Task Force, as the group previewed their findings before a board meeting Tuesday on charter schools. “We chose to start with attendance because attendance matters. If a child is not in school, we do not have that revenue, and that child is not learning.”

Chronically absent students are students who miss 15 or more days of school, which is 14.3 percent of LA Unified’s enrollment, or 80,000 students. If you add the students who are missing eight to 14 days of school a year, that figure increases to 17.9 percent of all students. Most of the higher absences are in low-income schools and in kindergarten and high school grades. The task force found that African-American students have the highest percentage of absences and that among all ethnicities except Asian, the rates of absences are higher among less affluent families.

Chronic absenteeism is a focus not only of the district but of the state and nation. This week it was added to the California School Dashboard. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires all states to report data on chronic absences, even if it isn’t used for accountability.

“Sometimes the reasons for absenteeism is simply that a parent can’t get asthma medication for her child, and maybe the district can help with that,” Beutner said. Other causes for long absences include bullying, poor grades, homelessness, and illness.

The task force pulled best practices that have helped boost attendance in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Long Beach Unified, New York, Cleveland, and other areas, and outlined some pilot programs that will begin as soon as Jan. 1. Acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said she will roll out the pilot programs and see what is working in six months when the school year ends.

“I’m excited because the district has the support of the larger community, and obviously attendance is a complex issue,” Ekchian said. “We have a large foster population, and that is particularly fragile.”

The school board will hear details of the pilot roll-out at Tuesday’s school board meeting, the last of the calendar year. The task force itself will help raise $250,000 to help the district launch the pilot programs. The programs include:

  •    Starting a district-wide public awareness campaign through a media campaign and social media to create a “drumbeat of information to help awareness” of how important attendance is and to engage community, business, and religious groups in the message.
  •    Targeting 20,000 chronically absent students by hiring In Class Today, a firm that tracks attendance data and mails updates to families.
  •    Canvassing neighborhoods and businesses where there are high concentrations of chronic absences and offering materials that show the benefits of attending school.
  •    Contacting families through phone banks and texts to see if families need assistance.
  •    Offering incentives with cash bonuses for schools showing the most progress, which can be used at the discretion of the principal.

A future long-term and more expensive proposal from the task force involves one-on-one counseling and mentors to work with students and families. Predominantly minority, low-income, and foster children are the among the most chronically absent, which significantly decreases their rates of high school graduation.

“This is a win-win because it will help the students directly, and it will get the involvement of the community,” said task force member Wendy Greuel, who is a consultant for CSUN and a former city controller and City Council member.

Task force member Renata Simril, president and CEO of the LA84 Foundation, added, “This does have a serious impact to the budget, when you consider that getting students back one day can add $30 million.”

*This article has been updated to correct that in order to save $30 million a year, all students would have to attend school one additional day, and that the task force findings will be presented Tuesday by the acting superintendent. 

Read Next