Danielle Garegnani is a bundle of energy. She’s only been principal of Horton Elementary School for three years, but as she flits through the Chollas View on a campus on a sunny Wednesday morning, alternating between speaking into her walkie-talkie and greeting children, she looks as if she’s worked there all her life.
“Hi Ms. Garegnani,” a troupe of kids merrily recited as they passed by. “Hi friends,” she responded, calling after one child whose shoes were untied. “It’s a very busy school,” she laughed.
The scene was almost idyllic. But the reality is that Horton has long struggled, in no small part because of the stark socioeconomic conditions of the community it serves.
Last year, 99 percent of Horton’s nearly 400 students met the criteria of socioeconomically disadvantaged. About 40 percent were also classified as homeless – the largest number of any San Diego Unified school. Research has shown these metrics closely correlate with all manner of negative academic outcomes. After all, kids’ struggles at home don’t magically disappear when the school bell rings. That’s something Garegnani is all too familiar with.
“We can’t control homelessness, we can’t control poverty, we can’t control a lot of the things that impact our students,” Garegnani said. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.
One of the most worrying academic indicators, not only for schools like Horton, is chronic absenteeism – when a student misses at least 10 percent of days in a school year. In the 2018 – 2019 school year, 22 percent of Horton’s students were chronically absent, which was exactly 10 percentage points higher than the district average. Then the pandemic hit.
Horton’s rate of chronic absenteeism tripled to about 67 percent in the 2021 – 2022 school year. That’s more than double the district’s overall rate and the 10th highest of any San Diego Unified school. Chronic absenteeism rates for the 2022 – 2023 school year have not yet been released.
The skyrocketing rates of chronic absenteeism are a crisis in San Diego schools because all other negative academic outcomes are downstream of attendance. Kids just can’t learn if they aren’t in class. But research has also shown that kids from low-income communities like the one Horton serves have more difficulty catching back up.
That’s why Garegnani and her team have made driving down chronic absenteeism one of their primary objectives. The sample size is still small, but this year Horton has chipped away at the national chronic absenteeism crisis manifesting on its campus. It hasn’t come easy.
‘We Think of the Pandemic as a Restart’
That busy Wednesday morning, Garegnani was headed to meet with Horton’s attendance team. They meet every week to strategize and plan.
The team includes Horton’s counselors, a transitional kindergarten early childhood educator, a Family Services Assistant hired by San Diego Unified to help Lincoln cluster schools manage attendance and Kirsten Grimm, who works with the San Diego County Office of Education’s Improving Chronic Absenteeism Network. The network partners with a new cohort of county schools each year to help them implement research-based strategies to combat chronic absenteeism, and this year Horton is one of them.
During the meeting, the team reviewed its attendance data, which is updated weekly. The data provided by Horton and the county showed the school’s attendance rate for the first weeks of the school year was slightly higher than it was last year. The school’s current rate of chronic absenteeism, how many kids have missed at least 10 percent of the school year so far, was also slightly lower than at the same time last year. It’s good news. But even as Horton claws its way out of the deep attendance hole the pandemic left it in, administrators hope not to simply return to the already elevated pre-pandemic levels.
“We’re optimistic, and we think of the pandemic as a restart. It’s about asking ourselves ‘What can we do better? What can we do different?’” Ricardo Holguin, Horton’s counselor said. He doesn’t want to rush this work, instead he wants to take it slow and get it right.
It’s important to get right not only because of the significant role it plays in student performance, but because of the realities of school funding. Schools lose approximately $57 for every student absence. Garegnani estimates absences cost Horton more than $490,000 last year – a critical sum for a school with high needs.
Three Tiers of Intervention
Part of why chronic absenteeism is so difficult to tackle is because no two stories are exactly the same. Chronically absent kids also miss very different amounts of school. Experts broadly separate chronic absenteeism interventions into three tiers that cater to various student needs.
Tier 1: These interventions are meant to impact all students, regardless of attendance record.
“Our tier one strategies are focused on school culture and climate and making Horton really fun,” Grimm said. The thinking is that the more connection kids feel to their school, the more they’ll want to come.
Horton’s held a welcome back night with balloons and a photo opportunity for kids, individual attendance awards and even smaller challenges with prizes. A recent challenge was based on attendance surrounding Labor Day weekend, a frequent trouble spot. The class with the highest average attendance got to slime Holguin, the school counselor.
“Their attendance on that Tuesday after Labor Day attendance went up by 7 percent from last year, which is crazy,” Grimm said.
Patty Covarrubias, the transitional kindergarten early childhood educator, said her class won. “We had perfect attendance the whole week,” she said with a smile.
To get families reengaged, Horton’s held events like a transitional kindergarten orientation to Family Fridays, which bring parents onto campus. The latter is something Holguin is particularly passionate about. When he started, Family Fridays were sparsely attended, but he’d heard it hadn’t always been that way.
“We used to have a strong parent community before the pandemic,” Holguin said. Last year they held both a science night and a movie night. Holguin was amazed by how many people came and how much fun kids had. Even kids they don’t often see because of attendance struggles were there, he said.
“The community’s telling us that they want to come and bring their kids here and they want to participate,” Holguin said. “So, we need to provide activities and events, and maybe become more creative about how everybody can collaborate,” he said.
Tier 2: These interventions are meant for students who are moderately chronically absent, or just on the verge. They’re what the county’s Improving Chronic Absenteeism Network is focused on. Grimm and the network helped Horton identify a group of students in that middle range whose attendance they’ve been monitoring. At the time that was around 70 students.
One strategy is nudge letters, which let parents know how much school their child has missed, how it compares with other kids and the ramifications of absences on learning. The team decided that not only would teachers send letters to students they had relationships with, but that students should also write notes to absent classmates to let them know they were missed.
They also got to work planning what they’re calling the Fall Feat. The contest will award kids in that second tier a field trip to a local park where they’ll play games and maybe even slime another staff member if they keep their absences low through fall.
All of this – the letters, the contests – is meant to encourage parents to keep attendance at the forefront of their minds, and to ensure kids are excited to come to school. The team is also waiting on the rollout of a home to school transportation program the district is developing.
“Last year and the year prior a lot of the attendance focus was on the extreme situations, and it was really hard,” Garegnani said. “The difference and the support from (the network) means we’re not letting go of the extreme situations but also really focusing on getting those almost chronic or just barely chronic kids back in school.”
Tier 3: The attendance issues of the most severely chronically absent students are rarely due to a lack of motivation, and that’s what these interventions try to address. They’re more personalized and targeted and include consultations with the school’s nurse or counselor and parent conferences.
Garegnani, Holguin and others also make regular home visits to figure out why students are absent. Sometimes they’re visiting a grandparent’s house, and in some instances it’s even to makeshift homes outside like a tent. The definition of student homelessness is broader than traditional definitions, but Horton does have some students who live outdoors.
Those home visits yield drastically different stories about why kids are absent, underscoring the need to get to the why of chronic absenteeism. Sometimes it’s transportation, other times it’s family illness or needing to watch younger siblings. In one case, a student was scared to walk to school because of safety concerns.
“We didn’t know that was the reason they weren’t coming to school until we made a home visit,” Garegnani said. They’ve been improvising while they look for a permanent solution, trying to ensure an adult is available to walk with the student. On days one can’t, the student will call a staff member to pick them up.
“That’s a specialized, very specific intervention and support that very small groups of kids need, but in Horton’s case, it’s not so small,” Garegnani said.
But given schools’ limited resources, those kinds of targeted interventions just aren’t possible at scale. So, Garegnani and her staff are working hard to ensure they catch kids before they fall into that tier and are pulling all the levers they do have available. So far, they’re having success, but there’s still much work to do.
“Every single teacher that’s at this school wants to be at a school with Horton’s needs,” Garegnani said. “We care, we want our kids to be learning and want the best for them.”