State route 94 has long acted as one of the key economic dividers in the city of San Diego. The communities south of the 94 have higher poverty rates and less economic opportunity than their neighbors to the north. It’s so striking that the federal government has identified the area as one of just 22 nationwide whose levels of poverty require collaborative efforts between local, state and national leaders to solve.
That divide is still very much alive. Post-pandemic school chronic absenteeism rates have reached eye-popping levels nationally, statewide and locally. And according to data gathered for Voice of San Diego’s latest Parent’s Guide to San Diego Schools and additional state data, 11 of the 20 schools with the highest levels of chronic absenteeism are located south of the 94. Seven of those are clustered in just one ZIP code.
‘We Have a Huge Crisis’
Chronic absenteeism – when a student misses 10 percent or more of instructional days in a year – has nearly tripled statewide, from around 11 percent to around 30 percent, since the pandemic. Of the 20 San Diego schools with the highest levels of chronic absenteeism, 15 are in San Diego Unified.
In the 2021-2022 school year, the last full school year for which data is available, the rate of chronic absenteeism at the district hit around 34 percent. These sky-high numbers are a serious concern, as chronic absenteeism is associated with a slew of negative educational outcomes from low-performance to increased drop-out rates.
The percentage of students chronically absent at the 15 San Diego Unified schools near the top of the list are shocking. At the top of the list is Ingenuity Charter, the only non-district run school in the top 15, where 89 percent of students are chronically absent and at the bottom is Balboa Elementary, where 63 percent of students are chronically absent. Though chronic absenteeism at most of these schools was high pre-pandemic, many of them saw a tripling of their rates, like Rodriguez Elementary, which went from 24 percent in the 2018-2019 school year, to a whopping 76 percent. Valencia Park Elementary saw a nearly fivefold increase, from 13 to 63 percent.
Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, an organization focused on fighting educational inequities by addressing chronic absence said inconsistent or nonexistent attendance keeping methods when schools went virtual hid the scale of the issue.
“When we went back to in-person it became clear we have a huge crisis,” Chang said.
San Diego Unified board member Richard Barrera said the rise in chronic absenteeism is something beyond anything he, or the district, have experienced. “It’s a huge issue, maybe in a lot of ways the most pressing issue, not just for our district, but … around the state,” Barrera said.
For Barrera and Chang, this trend is so concerning because research shows students who are chronically absent are more likely to fall behind and potentially drop out, which in turn puts them at risk of a slew of other quality of life issues into adulthood. That connection between attendance, learning loss and performance may even be playing a role in unprecedented declines in test scores after the Covid pandemic.
These issues are potentially even more dire given all but one of those 15 schools serve elementary to middle schoolers, and experts said learning losses early in a child’s life can compound and make it difficult to catch up.
A Chronic Absenteeism Hotspot
That so many of the schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in San Diego Unified may not be a surprise. It’s by far the largest district in the county and it covers some of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Still, the district’s nearly 250 schools account for less than half of the schools for which chronic absenteeism data was collected.
Even more concerning is the 15 San Diego Unified schools with the highest levels of chronic absenteeism aren’t scattered throughout the district. Fourteen of them are south of Interstate 8, and 11 are south of state Route 94, which has long represented the sharp divide in income levels in the city.
Seven of those schools are in the same ZIP code, which stretches from Barrio Logan to Lincoln Park, east of the 805. That ZIP code, 92113, has the lowest level of median household income in the county. Nine of the schools fall within the San Diego Promise Zone, one of 22 federally recognized “Promise Zones” selected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development because of their high levels of poverty and limited economic opportunity.
Chang said unfortunately that clustering isn’t surprising. Socioeconomically disadvantaged populations and communities of color tend to have higher rates of chronic absenteeism.
“Communities where educational inequities have long been a challenge are also more deeply affected by chronic absence,” Chang said. She pointed to research that shows that children living in poverty experience more learning loss tied to chronic absenteeism than children from more affluent families.
“If you have parents who are working multiple jobs, who are facing stressors, who are challenged in their health, they’re less able to help their kids at home,” Chang said. “If you can’t get to school, you don’t get to benefit from what’s there, and you are less likely to have the resources at home to make up for it.”
The San Diego Unified schools with the highest levels of chronic absenteeism are also predominantly Latino. All but one of the 15 schools has a higher percentage of Latino students than the district’s overall 47 percent. Collectively they are around 75 percent Latino.
But even given that Latinos are the single largest ethnic group in San Diego Unified, the district is doing a worse job preventing them from sliding into chronic absenteeism than the state and the county. The rate of chronic absenteeism among Latino students is 10 percentage points higher than the state, and 9 percentage points higher than the county’s average.
Chang said Latino and immigrant families have been particularly affected by the Covid pandemic, something Voice of San Diego’s reporting has previously confirmed.
“Our Latino families, they were essential workers, they had less access to health care, they much more likely faced large numbers of trauma and death during the pandemic,” Chang said.
“It’s not just what happened in schools, it’s what happened in communities, and as schools we have to figure out how to respond,” she said.
‘No More Critical Issue to Address’
Reducing chronic absenteeism requires schools to address four main challenges, according to Attendance Works: barriers, like transportation and health issues; aversion, like school climate issues; disengagement, like a lack of meaningful relationships to adults; and misconceptions around the effect absences can have on students.
“People can’t really fathom how many kids are missing how much school,” said Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, who studies chronic absenteeism. “Looking at those levels, it seems like you almost have to be holding community meetings to try to figure out root causes.”
In an email, San Diego Unified’s communications director Maureen Magee wrote “COVID-19 and other illnesses, mental health needs, housing and food insecurities, unmet transportation needs, and inflation, can all contribute to chronic absenteeism.”
Magee said the district’ has also increased access to school-based mental health services, expanded extended learning opportunities and advocated for youth opportunity passes that make public transit free to students.
“There is no more critical issue to address,” Barrera said. “But it’s something that I don’t know that anybody has their head completely around – why it’s happening and what to do about it.”
Barrera said at-home visits are one of the best strategies for addressing chronic absenteeism. Last year, the district expanded a program that began in the Hoover High School cluster, hiring one family services assistant for every high school cluster. According to Magee, these individuals “work with families (including home visits) and schools to help decrease absenteeism by analyzing data and connecting families to the necessary support and resources.”
At-home visits can help, said Chang and Balfanz, but the quality of those services matters, as does their workload. And despite each San Diego Unified high school cluster having one family services assistant, the clusters experience drastically different rates of chronic absenteeism.
Barrera said the explanations for student absences are similar to those given before the pandemic – like lack of transportation. But the pandemic, he said, exacerbated the struggles in the most disadvantaged communities. “If we’re not focused on bringing resources in an equitable way to a school like Rodriguez (Elementary) then I don’t know what somebody would think an educational system should be doing,” Barrera said.
While issues that existed before the pandemic, like a lack of transportation, can be solved with logistical fixes like free public transit, the more difficult barriers to deal with are the mental or social-emotional health struggles students may be dealing with post-pandemic. After years of virtual learning, students may feel more disconnected from their school, or they may be worried about bringing Covid home, especially if they’ve already lost someone, Chang said.
“The question for the district is how do you adjust?” Chang asked. “Is a school building equipped to respond to the physical, emotional and mental health challenges that the reality of COVID reflects?”