LAUSD Teacher Faces Challenges with Chronically Absent Students

A unique strategy has been developed by second-grade teacher Nelly Cristales to address chronic absenteeism at her LAUSD school – competition.

Located near University Park in East Los Angeles, the 32nd Street School awards a large, vibrant trophy to the class with the fewest absences and tardiness. Cristales’ students are highly motivated to win the trophy.

Cristales explained, “My kids are motivated, we want that trophy, and we want to keep it.” The winning class gets to proudly display the trophy in their classroom for a whole month. According to Cristales, they constantly remind each other to not be late.

Chronic absenteeism has become a personal issue for Cristales, as approximately three out of her 22 students regularly miss class. Furthermore, this problem appears to be worsening. Last year, Cristales’ class won the trophy twice, but this year they haven’t won it at all.

LA Unified schools have experienced a significant decline in student attendance post-COVID-19. The district reported a 19.8% increase in chronic absenteeism in the 2021-22 school year, with 40% of students affected, according to an LAUSD spokesperson.

When asked about the challenges posed by chronic absenteeism, Cristales responded, “Where do I start?” She emphasized the importance of every day in delivering educational content to students and expressed the urgency of not wasting any time as an educator.

Cristales likened the process of learning to climbing a mountain, where each day in the classroom is a step towards reaching the top. Even missing a single day of school can significantly impact a student’s learning.

As a teacher, Cristales feels a responsibility to help absent students catch up, despite having other students to attend to. She expressed her frustration, stating, “It is frustrating to me as a teacher because I know what the loss of the day means for those students.”

Aside from the competition-based approach, Cristales’ school has also partnered with the University of Southern California. This partnership provides tutors and mentors who spend 30 minutes with the students twice a week. However, if the students are absent, they miss out on this valuable support.

According to LA Unified, students are considered chronically absent if they miss at least 10% of school days, which is approximately three and a half weeks of classes.

Cristales has noticed significant changes in her classroom since the pandemic. Many students are not attending school, and when asked about the reasons, they often attribute it to waking up late or facing traffic issues. She observed that their priorities seem to have shifted.

Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, explained that COVID-19 has altered the behavior of both students and parents when it comes to school. Many parents are more cautious about sending their children to school if they are not feeling well, and there is evidence to suggest that students are less engaged overall.

The transition to online classes also contributed to the perception that missing school is not a significant issue. Polikoff noted that some families now believe it is not a big deal if their children miss school.

In a study conducted by Polikoff and his colleagues, they discovered clear demographic trends in increased absenteeism among Black and Hispanic students. Historically underserved student groups experienced significant declines in attendance, and these students have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

Polikoff stated, “What we know about the pandemic and its impact on students is that it just widened every gap.” He explained that various disadvantages, both within and outside of school, tend to accumulate and have a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic students.

Factors contributing to higher absence rates among Black and Hispanic students include lower vaccination rates in these communities, which can result in illness or aversion to getting sick, as highlighted by Polikoff.

To address the issue of higher absenteeism rates, LAUSD has implemented the iAttend program. This initiative aims to improve student attendance and ensure they are ready for the future through the analysis of data, community outreach, and staff education enhancements.