Scotts Valley Unified School District (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

On Tuesday night, the Scotts Valley Unified School District designated September as Attendance Awareness Month as part of an effort to crack the whip, gently, on students who haven’t been showing up to school.

As Scotts Valley skews affluent, schools here don’t get as much State funding per-child as poorer areas, so making sure kids go to class every day is extremely important—as attendance numbers are key to how the District qualifies for government dollars.

The fight against flagging attendance comes as local educators push for a renewed and increased parcel tax—called Measure V—just to maintain basic education services.

Board members heard a presentation featuring a slide from the national Attendance Works initiative with pithy phrases like “ATTEND TODAY, ACHIEVE TOMORROW,” that warns that students who miss 10% of classes could be knocked off-track.

SVUSD is aiming to hit a 95.1% attendance rate this year.

The District is sending out truant letters for three or more absences and “Chronic Letters” to parents of kids who hit the 10% absence mark. It also has an Attendance Review Team to evaluate the situation.

The meeting came days after Brook Knoll Elementary School parents received a newsletter that—in addition to noting the lost and found was overflowing and would be emptied Sept. 29—highlighted the problems the school is having getting kids to show up.

“Each year, there are always a handful of students who take a little bit of time to adjust to school,” reads a note signed by Brook Knoll Principal Joshua Wahl and Vine Hill Elementary School Assistant Principal Kayleigh Kelp, “but there seems to be an overall increase in school refusal and anxiety in students for the last couple years.”

The Sept. 22 email included a Psychology Today article called “How to Help a Child Overcome School Refusal: Tantrums to avoid school are a symptom of a bigger problem.”

The piece by El Segundo-based licensed clinical social worker Katie Hurley states that 2-5% of children refuse to attend school due to anxiety or depression and claims what was once called “school phobia” can “wreak havoc” on families.

“Unlike truancy, students who engage in school refusal aren’t simply ditching classes in favor of more exciting activities or hiding their absences from their parents,” Hurley wrote. “Although refusing to walk into school or get into the car might feel manipulative to the exhausted parent attempting to get the child to school, it isn’t. School refusal is triggered by underlying mental health issues that require treatment and support.”

The piece recommends setting up a “peer buddy” for recess and other unstructured times to combat anxiety and stresses the importance of establishing healthy sleep habits (and maintaining this even on weekends and holidays), among other ideas.

Absenteeism doubled since Covid

Tuesday’s board presentation warns California’s schools are experiencing record numbers of class-skipping since the novel coronavirus arrived.

“Statewide chronic absenteeism increased from 12% to 30% from the 2018-2019 school year to 2021-2022,” one slide reads. “In Santa Cruz County, the rate of chronic absenteeism more than doubled over the same period, increasing from 10.4% to 27%. These numbers are alarming and have far-reaching effects.”

In fact, it notes, attendance is a better predictor of graduation rates than eighth-grade test scores are.

The District is making school-wide announcements and showing students short videos on the subject and holding classroom attendance awards.

Brook Knoll has been producing “ATTEND TODAY / ACHIEVE TOMORROW” magnets with the phone number to call to let the school know if a child needs to miss school. Teachers there are also giving out new “Soaring Eagle awards” to students “who demonstrate our school expectations,” as a way to build “community and school” spirit.

Vine Hill officials say they have instituted an “increased focus on tracking student attendance” with more parent reminders in the form of newsletters, filers and other messaging.

The goal is to make students feel “welcome when present, and missed when absent!”

Scotts Valley Middle School is holding morning announcements with attendance shout-outs.

The first batch of attendance-tracking letters went out to Scotts Valley High School families last week.

“We are not just tracking full day absences anymore!” the presentation noted.

Donut holes are now being awarded to random classes that have positive attendance.

The Attendance Awareness organization suggests parents share positive stories from their school days and organize a neighborhood carpool or “walking school bus.”

One Brook Knoll parent who spoke with the Press Banner on condition of anonymity said it was understandable that attendance had dropped slightly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

She said some families ended up placing students into homeschool settings, or other alternative learning environments, where kids became less accustomed to traditional classroom settings.

The parent said she doesn’t think the situation is that serious and she mostly skips over the increased messaging from the District about its attendance worries.

Matthew Riddle, the parent of a Vine Hill student, said he’s noticed the uptick in appeals from SVUSD about the importance of young learners being present in the classroom.

“They’ve underscored it a bit more than usual,” he said. “They need the kids to be there for their funding, right?”

Now, if they’re taking their daughter out of class for an independent learning trip, they make sure to let school officials know.

While this is something they did prior to the pandemic, he says he wouldn’t be surprised if other families embraced such alternative learning approaches during the lockdown period.

“It hasn’t been excessive or anything,” he said. “We’re trying to be more mindful…so they can get their funding.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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