Alameda County District Attorney's Office
Nancy E. O'Malley, District Attorney

Meet DA Nancy E. O'Malley

Opinion: We Must Work Together to Get Children to Attend School

By Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley and Superintendent Tony Smith of the Oakland Unified School District.

Originally published in the Oakland Tribune/Contra Costa Times on 09/06/2012.

On Aug. 27, Oakland Unified School District students headed back to school. Sadly, far too many Oakland students missed that first day and continue missing so much school that they put themselves at academic risk.

In fact, nearly one in seven Oakland students misses nearly a month of school every year, a trend that starts for some children as early as kindergarten.

Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read well by the end of third grade, and are more likely to have poor attendance in later grades.

By middle and high school, chronic absence is a proven early warning sign that a student will drop out. This is especially true for economically disadvantaged students who need school the most to break out of the cycle of poverty, but are sometimes getting the least.

To turn this around, OUSD is launching an "Every Day Counts; Attend Today, Achieve Tomorrow" campaign to bring more students to school. Our local initiative is helping to inspire similar efforts in other communities as two national organizations, Attendance Works and The Campaign for Grade Level Reading, launch a call to action to all local superintendents to reduce chronic absence starting in the early grades.

Schools can't do this alone.

Parents and families clearly play the primary role in establishing positive attendance patterns. Parents must set the tone from the moment a student begins school by stressing the importance of showing up every day and on time.

Good habits must also be established -- enforcing bed times, checking homework and being active participants in the student's academic lives.

Government agencies also have key roles to play.

For example, the Oakland Housing Authority, whose apartments are home to many chronically absent students, has committed both resources and staff to work hand-in-hand with parents and students to ensure that all young people living in these properties attend school daily.

The Alameda County District Attorney's Office is working with school officials to ensure that effective truancy policies work to bring students back to school by addressing the root causes of the absenteeism.

Collaborating with the courts and the probation department, the DA's office also oversees the county's truancy referral process, a model program that brings together service providers and the justice system to address chronic truancy.

Children stay home for a number of reasons, including chronic illness, unreliable transportation, housing issues or simply because their parents don't understand how important the early grades can be.

Again, the solutions here go beyond the schoolyard.

For older students, absenteeism is more often a matter of discretion and a sign that a student is not engaged in school. In many cases, absences are connected to disciplinary issues -- suspensions or expulsions.

Every day suspended is another absence, another lost opportunity to learn.

Last year alone, more than 25,000 suspensions were issued in Alameda County. Of those, 35 percent were for behavior that was neither violent nor related to drugs. Chronic absence and suspension rates are especially problematic for African-American students in Oakland. Roughly one in five African-American boys was chronically absent in 2010-11.

These issues have repercussions for the entire community. Students who are chronically absent or frequently suspended from school are at greater risk of dropping out, and dropouts are three times more likely than high school graduates to be arrested.

We must continue to strive for common-sense discipline alternatives that keep kids in school, while still holding them accountable for their behavior by putting in place evidence-based strategies to reward good behavior and address the root causes behind misconduct.

Oakland Unified pioneered one such plan by implementing a restorative justice program that teaches students to be mediators and problem solvers instead of troublemakers. In one school, this approach led to an 87 percent drop in suspensions in a single year.

We are committed to working collaboratively with parents, community service agencies, the courts and schools to help pull in, rather than push out, struggling students.

***

Nancy O'Malley is Alameda County district attorney and Tony Smith is superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District.

Posted on Sep 7, 2012