Students who aren't in school aren't learning, and those who are chronically absent are less likely to be academically successful as they grow up.
"When students are not in school, they're at risk," said Judge Browder A. Willis III, a juvenile court judge with the Superior Court of San Diego County.
That message was the focus of a press conference and School Attendance Review Board summit the San Diego County Office of Education held Sept. 11 as part of the nationwide effort to recognize September as Attendance Awareness Month.
"Here at the San Diego County Office of Education, we are committed to supporting school districts and community partners so students will be successful in school, and attendance is one of the most critical factors connected to student success," said Don Buchheit, SDCOE's interim assistant superintendent. "Kids being in school is the key to kids achieving in school."
School Attendance Awareness Month is a national initiative sponsored by Attendance Works that brings together families, schools, community, and statewide leaders to publicize the connection between school attendance and academic achievement.
"We need to all work together to support our No. 1 priority, which is our students," Alex Cortes, principal at Lauderbach Elementary School in Chula Vista. "One day missed is a day that's lost—a golden opportunity for learning."
Nationwide an estimated 5 to 7.5 million students are chronically absent each year, meaning they miss 10 percent or more of the school year in excused and unexcused absences. That's about 18 or 19 days in a typical year.
A student who is chronically absent any year between eighth and 12th grade was 7.4 times more likely to drop out, one study shows.
And it's not just a problem for older students. One in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students is chronically absent each year. Those children are less likely to read proficiently by the time they finish third grade. Only about 17 percent of students who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade could read at grade level by the end of third grade, compared to 62 percent for those who attended regularly, according to preliminary statewide data.
Educators must work closely with students to let them know how important attendance is to their future, said David Napoleon, principal at Chaparral High School in El Cajon.
"Attendance improves when students know that an adult on campus cares about them," he said. "Every child needs a reason to come to school."
Nancy Sanchez struggled with attendance when she was in high school. She said the caring teachers in her classes at Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) helped her get on track. Now, she's as San Diego City College, preparing for a future as a social worker.
"This wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't for JCCS," she said. "I overcame many struggles."
Sanchez was the keynote speaker at the Sept. 11 School Accountability Review Board summit at the SDCOE main campus. The summit also featured a variety of informative sessions about a variety of topics related to attendance, including trauma, drug use, legislation, and intervention.
More than 120 people attended the summit, including those from school districts in San Diego and Imperial counties, youth service agencies, and charter schools.
In Sacramento Sept. 11, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recognized School Attendance Awareness Month.
"Children must attend school to learn, succeed, and prepare for a bright future," Torlakson said. "It's a simple concept that's sometimes overlooked. The link between attendance and academic achievement is clear, making it critical that all of us — parents, teachers, administrators, and community members — work together to prevent chronic school absence."
Photo: Nancy Sanchez discusses the importance of good attendance Sept. 11 at the San Diego County Office of Education.