KCUSD a ‘bright spot’ among state attendance struggles

Kings Canyon Unified School District demonstrates its commitment to students, community through chronic absenteeism bright spot observation

Serena Bettis
Published March 8, 2024  • 
10:00 am

REEDLEY – Statewide chronic absenteeism rates have reached all-time highs since the COVID-19 pandemic, a circumstance Reedley and Orange Cove schools are not immune to; however, within Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), those highs are still lower than most other districts across California. 

Chronic absenteeism is when students are absent for more than 10% of the expected attendance days in the school year. A concern prior to COVID-19 as well, chronic absenteeism rates for kindergarten students jumped from 15% to more than 40% during and after the onset of the pandemic, according to the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE).

“(That’s) millions of hours of instruction time lost; also the most critical foundational years,” CCEE Deputy Executive Director Sujie Shin said. “So when kids were coming back, that’s when we started hearing a lot of issues like self-regulation (and) social-emotional growth that had been missing during that time that then impacted academic outcomes.” 

In 2019, the statewide chronic absenteeism rate for kindergarteners was 15.6%; it jumped to 36.3% in 2023. At KCUSD, 9.6% of kindergarteners were chronically absent in 2019, and 26.7% were chronically absent in 2023. 

Through these numbers and a broader analysis of publicly available attendance data, the CCEE identified KCUSD as a chronic absenteeism “bright spot,” a recognition that only 20 out of nearly 1,000 California school districts received. 

Shin said KCUSD shines in this area not only because its overall rates are lower than average, but because it shows a holistic and ever-improving trajectory toward getting that rate down.

“We looked at places that had pretty strong performance across all of their schools, because the question is not about a single outlier, but places that have systemic practices in place,” Shin said. 

Shin said the CCEE and its partners also looked for districts that had strong general performance across all student groups while taking into account socio-economically disadvantaged student populations. 

The ‘secret sauce’

On March 4 and 5, members of the Chronic Absenteeism Bright Spots Research Practice Partnership, which includes the CCEE, the University of California, Davis and nonprofit Attendance Works, visited KCUSD schools to observe and discover what it is about KCUSD that makes these rates stand out. Or, as Shin put it, to find the recipe for the district’s “secret sauce.” 

“We heard a lot about trust, and a lot about love,” Shin said. “That’s not necessarily usually what comes to mind first and foremost when you’re talking about a school policy, but I think it makes a lot of sense to us.” 

The Bright Spots team spent time at multiple KCUSD schools — focusing on the lower grades — to observe a school’s morning routine, get a feel for what school attendance policies look like in action, conduct focus groups with teachers, office staff and parents and observe what teaching and learning looks like in the classroom. 

The team wanted to see what engagement for families looked like during things like the morning drop off, Shin said. They observed parent interactions with school staff, the environment the students were walking into, what kinds of conversations were happening between parents, teachers and students and more. 

Shin said there wasn’t a checklist of things the Bright Spots team was looking for, it was more about getting a sense of the overall environment, because the CCEE is finding that the issue of absenteeism is not a “functional thing.”

“It’s not about, ‘I drop off, and the kid shows up,’ it’s all the reasons around why students feel comfortable and safe, how parents are feeling when they hand off — especially their youngest children — with the sniffles,” Shin said. 

Especially since the pandemic, when parents were told that sending their children to school with even the slightest hint of a cold could be detrimental to everyone, Shin said that addressing chronic absenteeism in the earliest grades is largely about building a safe and loving environment that children want to be in and parents have trust in. 

Sharon Matsuzaki, KCUSD data systems and accountability coordinator, said that she thinks KCUSD has been so successful with that because of the stability the district has had with its messaging, staffing and policies. 

“It’s been years in the making; it’s not something that happens overnight,” Matsuzaki said. “It is trust and consistency, and I think consistency is probably one of the biggest through lines that goes through everything.” 

There isn’t one magic policy or attendance-gathering method that improves chronic absenteeism rates. Instead, it’s been about keeping the district’s vision and mission strong and student-focused, Matsuzaki said. 

Additionally, Matsuzaki said that even as the district’s chronic absenteeism rates improve, staff remain focused on the topic and make it a continuous priority. 

“We always go back to what’s best for our students — what do our students need, what do our families need and making sure that we always keep the students at the center of everything that we do,” Matsuzaki said. “The decisions that we make and … whatever policy we put into place really looks at the student and … how we are going to improve and change.” 

Developing best practices

The CCEE was created by the State Legislature in 2013 and is charged with advising and assisting schools in meeting their goal. The CCEE operates statewide, but does not have anything to do with school assessment, accountability or compliance monitoring — it is specifically geared toward meeting schools and districts where they’re at and giving them the resources they need to succeed.

Beyond identifying the chronic absenteeism bright spots, the CCEE and its research partners want to build materials that can help other districts assess and improve upon their own results. 

Shin said invitations for deep dives and site visits were extended to each bright spot district to help the CCEE build these best practices; KCUSD was the third district the team visited. 

Although Shin and much of the rest of the Bright Spots team come from research backgrounds, the last thing they intend to do is create a long report about what they find with these observations, because that’s not going to be of much use to districts, Shin said. 

“A lot of resources out there, it puts the burden on the user to try to understand, ‘OK, well how do I adapt this to my particular environment, how do I actually use this?’ … so we try to do that heavy lift,” Shin said. 

Instead, the CCEE focuses on creating tools that help address a specific challenge, and it ensures it is specific about who it is for. 

For example, rather than just listing a suggested policy, Shin said that the materials the CCEE develops might have a scenario in which a district might use a particular practice, and that tool would be identified as being great for an upper elementary school that has lots of English learners.

The CCEE uses a QRU rubric — which stands for quality, relevancy and usability — to evaluate the materials and tools it creates for districts. 

Shin said first, they look at whether or not everything they create is high-quality and evidence- and research-based, showing that a practice has been used in the field and works for others. 

Second, they look at relevancy to a particular circumstance, ensuring that a suggested practice is applicable to a district’s students and community.

Third, the CCEE looks at usability, focusing on if the tool minimizes the burden on its user so they can actually implement the suggested practice. 

Shin said that things like chronic absenteeism are “large, intractable problems and challenges,” and the CCEE recognizes that a series of short videos isn’t going to turn those problems around. Even still, observing and documenting what makes places like KCUSD successful can put others on their desired path. 

“I was in (A.L. Conner Elementary School) yesterday where they did not hire any new teachers last year because they didn’t need to — everybody stayed,” Shin said. “That’s huge. … That’s not something that I can magically go around and say, ‘you need to do this,’ … but I do think about how we create the conditions to make that easier for districts, because we recognize that to build, you’ve got to have a really strong foundation.”

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter