San Diego Unified celebrated when student attendance rates soared last year. The increase brought in badly needed state funding. But as the school district braces for another year of budget cuts, it’s now facing the opposite — a dip in attendance that could cost schools roughly $3.3 million next year.

Many forces kept students from school. Swine flu and drizzly days pulled some kids home. But the school district has also cut back on clerical workers who call home to check on truants. And it didn’t follow through on its own recommendations to boost attendance and keep the funds flowing.

Attendance rates are vital for San Diego Unified. Schools across the state get more funding if more students show up. Attending school is also vital for students: Kids who miss lots of days are far more likely to fall behind in class, the first step in a slippery slope to dropping out completely.

Snapping up money is especially important as San Diego Unified stares down an estimated $87 million deficit. Sweetwater and Grossmont schools have also zeroed in on attendance to help both their budgets and their students. Yet so far this year, students have showed up less, hitting the school district pocketbook at a bad time.

Students attended school 0.55 percent less often this fall and winter than during the same six month period last year, according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis. The percentage drop may sound small, but rates don’t budge much when measured across the massive district. And it amounts to thousands of days missed.

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If attendance stays sluggish, schools will get $800,000 less than the average attendance haul over the past four years. It would be a roughly $3.3 million drop compared to the windfall that schools received after attendance shot upwards last year, according to a voiceofsandiego.org calculation. Budget staffers are already projecting and planning for a loss, but reversing the trend could avert some cuts. That would be enough to avoid trimming educational programs for students in Old Town and Balboa Park currently targeted for budget savings.

The drop happened after San Diego Unified kicked off new efforts to boost attendance. Police and community groups had criticized schools for being inconsistent and allowing kids to slip through.

To combat the problem, San Diego Unified expanded an inexpensive program to reward high school freshmen for attending school with donated prizes like laptops. An internal team of school district administrators also studied how to squelch student absenteeism. They turned up one big problem: Some schools followed up on absent students and some didn’t, said former student services chief Arun Ramanathan, who led the group. It recommended ways to make sure schools were consistently tackling absences.

But many of the ideas were abandoned. For instance, the school district sends out letters when students are repeatedly absent or tardy. But the district leaves it up to individual schools to send a second letter to families when students are absent for six or more days. Some neglect it. Ramanathan’s group recommended that San Diego Unified automatically send that second letter. It hasn’t done that.

“It kind of dissolved after people left (the school district) who were on that project,” said Crystal Cavanagh, the school district’s attendance manager. That includes Ramanathan, who left last fall. Adding more letters without more funding from the state “is quite an overload,” Cavanagh said.

The group also recommended that schools get automatic reports from the district listing students who have been absent so often that they should be referred to a truancy hearing. The goal was to make sure that absent kids get a hearing, where they can get help and face harsher consequences for skipping class, before the problem worsens even more. Those reports haven’t been issued either.

Another problem is manpower. Because San Diego Unified has left much of the work to individual schools, secretaries are often responsible for making the crucial phone calls or sending letters to track down students. Those same secretarial jobs have dwindled during budget cuts. While San Diego Unified also uses autodialers, they don’t have the same impact as real people, said Rebecca Phillpott, who oversees dropout prevention.

Getting kids to class was a big priority for former Superintendent Terry Grier, who trumpeted the growing numbers last year and regularly spotlighted schools that had increased attendance. Grier cited better attendance as one reason that elementary school test scores went up. He talked about it all the time.

But that has changed. Phillpott said budget cuts have consumed the interim superintendent’s time and attention. Ramanathan said that has a real impact: Principals are busy with tons of tasks. Student attendance can slip unless their supervisors make a big deal out of student attendance. Schools aren’t penalized under No Child Left Behind if their attendance drops. They don’t directly bear the costs or the savings.

School district employees caution that last year was unusually high for student turnout and isn’t a fair comparison. Some even argue those gains were a fluke and blame wild cards like illness or rainy days for the subsequent drop. The H1N1 flu is an obvious factor: Student turnout was especially poor in elementary school, a pattern that is reflected in hobbled attendance in the younger grades across San Diego County.

Nor is San Diego Unified alone, even at high schools, which were relatively untouched by the virus scare. In neighboring Grossmont, high school attendance rates dropped roughly 0.6 percent so far this year.

But outliers prove that schools can beat those factors. One of the schools-within-a-school at Crawford High, the Invention and Design Educational Academy, upped attendance almost every month in every grade this year. Principal Arturo Cabello credited a smorgasbord of services that keep kids in class, from mentoring to an aggressive counselor to rewards for perfect attendance — anything from stuffed animals to fishing trips. More than half of its students now have perfect attendance.

“I probably missed more than 15 or 20 days” last year, said Mohamud Egal, a senior who was honored for perfect attendance this year. “I used to have a D average. Now I don’t miss any homework.”

But IDEA is a happy exception. A more common tale comes from the School of Communication at San Diego High, where attendance dropped nearly 3 percent this year. In one gnarly month, students missed nearly one in every four days. Principal Anisha Dalal said the lagging economy is a big factor: Students who rely on public transit to get to school are struggling to pay their way, and principals at San Diego High are pleading for donations to help cover bus passes.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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