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Lost days: Poverty, isolation drive students away from school in California’s rural districts

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Lost days: Poverty, isolation drive students away from school in California’s rural districts

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This story was produced as part of a larger project led by David Washburn, a participant in the USC Center for Health Journalism's 2018 Data Fellowship.

Other stories in this series include:

Help EdSource shine a light on challenges in rural education

Rural California school district with high suspension rates under state investigation

Kaylee Adkins, who often had to stay home to care for her niece’s children, missed about a third of her senior year at Oroville’
Kaylee Adkins, who often had to stay home to care for her niece’s children, missed about a third of her senior year at Oroville’s Las Plumas High.
EdSource
Thursday, May 30, 2019

It was a wonder Kaylee Adkins ever made it to school.

The daughter of two heavy drug users, she lived a transient childhood — rarely staying for long in the same apartment, let alone the same school. She hardly saw her father who was in jail or prison throughout much of her childhood.

Kaylee’s circumstances caused her to routinely miss school days from the time she was in kindergarten through her high school years. The state now identifies students like her, who miss at least 10 percent of the school year, as “chronically absent.” It’s a problem that impacts school districts everywhere but is most acute in rural areas and small towns.

When Kaylee, now 20, was in grade school, her mother’s pattern was to stay in a place until the eviction notice came, then run. Sometimes it would be to another part of Oroville, a rural town of about 15,000 people in Northern California’s Butte County where her family was from. Other times it would be out of state to small towns in Texas or West Virginia.

Both of Kaylee’s parents died during her high school years and she ended up living with one of her older sisters, who had a teenage daughter about Kaylee’s age who had two young kids of her own. That made Kaylee a great aunt at the age of 16 and she was expected to stay home to take care of the children.

Though they lived just a few blocks from Las Plumas High in the Oroville Union High School District, Kaylee missed all or part of 54 days — nearly a third of her senior year, her attendance records show.

“I was always like one step behind,” Kaylee said in a recent interview. “Going to school was always dependent on what my family needed.”

She was among the 26 percent, or about 600 students, at Oroville Union High School District who were chronically absent during the 2017-18 school year, according to an EdSource analysis of California Department of Education data.

Statewide, more than 700,000 students, or about 11 percent, were chronically absent. About 10 percent of the 1,000 districts statewide had rates near the level of Oroville Union High’s or significantly higher. Most of those districts were in rural areas, the analysis found:

  • Of the 98 districts with rates higher than 20 percent, 84 were in rural areas.
  • Of the 27 districts with rates higher than 30 percent, 26 were in rural areas.
  • Of the 40 counties where rates were above the statewide average, 30 are rural as identified by Rural County Representatives of California, a statewide group.

Students who are regularly missing school can be found in cities, suburbs and small towns throughout California and the United States.

Chronic absenteeism takes a toll on almost all aspects of student success and wellbeing, according to a large body of research. A student can fall significantly behind in their classwork after missing just a week.

As more time is missed, the connections to school begin to fray. Students become more likely to use drugs and engage in other unhealthy behaviors, the research shows. And in the end, they are more likely to drop out.

A call to action

These realities have been present in California’s rural districts for decades, yet only recently became visible to educators, parents and youth advocates.

The state has long tracked schools’ truancy rates, but that only accounts for unexcused absences. It wasn’t until the 2016-17 school year that the state started reporting details on all absences –  unexcused, excused and those due to suspension.

The state used that information to generate a chronic absenteeism rate and included it on the California School Dashboard, the statewide report card for schools. On the state dashboard, schools with chronic absenteeism rates ranging from more than 10 percent to 20 percent are labeled as “high.” Rates above 20 percent are considered “very high.”

But the state only releases the overall rate, not the breakdowns showing why students were absent. The Oroville Union High School District provided EdSource its records, which showed what’s behind the district’s 26 percent chronic absenteeism rate: 64 percent of days missed by district students in 2017-18 were unexcused, while 29 percent were due to excused absences, like illness and out-school suspensions. The rest were days missed due to in-school suspensions and independent study.

The state’s action to collect more information on why students were missing school came after more than a decade of advocacy on the issue, most notably by Hedy Chang and her San Francisco-based organization, Attendance Works. Chang sees absenteeism as a serious threat to student achievement in every school, but she worries particularly about how it has overwhelmed rural communities.

“It’s only in the past year and a half that people have realized they have a problem,” Chang said. “And in rural areas they have the fewest resources and the least access to the newest information about how to combat this.”

Educators and advocates in Butte County and a growing number of areas in rural California have become leaders statewide in the search for solutions. They formed a multi-county coalition called the Rural Education Network and made chronic absenteeism one of its signature issues.

The Butte County Office of Education, along with its counterpart in Orange County and the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, is leading a project, funded by a $15-million state grant, to develop programs and strategies aimed at creating better school climates and keeping students in school.

Yet, these efforts remain in their infancy. And those who are confronting the problem, whether in the classroom or in Sacramento, say they are still feeling their way in a fight against a complex and multi-layered foe.

The battle has become even more difficult in Butte County since November, when the Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise and neighboring communities. The wildfire killed 85 people, making it the deadliest in California history. It also destroyed or badly damaged several schools in the Paradise Unified School District and a handful of charter schools.

The tragedy upended the school lives of thousands of students and families leaving many traumatized, scrambling for not only which school to attend but where to sleep.

“We were already hurting for school-based interventions for mental health…How do we deal with absenteeism? How do we deal with a growing sense of students not feeling a part of their system and their community?” said Matt Reddam, a consulting trauma therapist with the Butte County Office of Education. “And the fires really just magnified that.”

On the surface, explanations of why students don’t come to school can be as simple as the logistics of living in far-flung places and the challenges of getting students to and from school. But also contributing are socioeconomic conditions in rural communities that have deteriorated in recent decades and, in certain remote areas, a long-held cultural distrust of schools and other institutions among residents.

Butte County, located about 80 miles north of Sacramento and with over half of its population living in small towns or remote communities, is in the heart of rural California.

Starting in the Gold Rush years and lasting into the early 20th century, natural beauty and robust mining and timber industries brought newcomers in droves. By the 1980s these industries were in decline, sapping the area’s economic vitality and opening the door for drugs, higher crime rates and other urban ills that rural areas were once immune to.

Butte lags the state averages in most measures of socioeconomic health. It has higher rates of unemploymentpoverty and single parent households; a lower median income and a smaller percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees, according to Federal Reserve data and U.S. Census estimates.

Butte leads all California counties in reports of what are known as “adverse childhood experiences,” which can include everything from a divorce or a death in the immediate family to parental drug use and physical and sexual abuse.

Kaylee’s story

Oroville, where Las Plumas High is located and Kaylee Adkins spent most of her childhoodshows the stresses of poverty and crime.

Its 20 percent poverty rate among families is nearly twice the statewide number, according to Census estimates. And it has the highest crime rate of any California city with more than 15,000 people, according to an EdSource analysis of 2017 FBI Uniform Crime Report data.

As the youngest of seven by nearly a decade, Kaylee watched as her father and then her four brothers were arrested for drug crimes and theft. Her two sisters, like her mother, got pregnant in their teens and dropped out.

Kaylee says she felt like an afterthought throughout most of her childhood. Her mother’s drug addictions got in the way of basic parental duties like taking her to school or picking her up.

“I remember just wanting to have parents who were there,” Kaylee said. “I wanted them to take me to the park and take me to Disneyland. I just wanted to do those kinds of things.”

There were times when the police would come and force Kaylee’s mother to put her in school, she said. But that would often only last until the next move. At one point, she was sent to foster care.

When Kaylee was 15, her mother died after a short battle with lung cancer. But before she died, she made Kaylee promise her that she would be the first person in the family to graduate from high school.

“I pushed so hard to graduate because when my mom was sick that’s all she wanted me to do,” Kaylee said.

No more ‘mad mother’

The poverty over generations that afflicts Kaylee’s family touches every corner of Butte County and is something Bobby Jones deals with on a daily basis. As the director of the African-American Family Cultural Center, Jones works on prevention efforts to help all students avoid the traps of substance abuse and crime.

African-American students make up a small proportion of Oroville Union High’s enrollment — just over 4 percent — but they make up a disproportionate share of chronically absent students: 36 percent compared to 26 percent for all students, according to the state data.

“You look at the dynamic of Oroville itself, starting with the crack epidemic of the 1980s and now with the opiates, and it’s just a lost generation out here,” Jones said.

Jones offers direct and early intervention as a member of the school attendance review boards, known as SARBs, for both the Oroville Union High and Oroville City Elementary districts.

Students can be referred to an attendance review board after their third unexcused absence. Parents get multiple letters and if needed, an invitation to appear before the board. In relatively rare cases, in which parents are refusing to cooperate, state law allows districts to refer them for prosecution.

Jones said he is often taken aback by the reactions from parents who are brought before the review boards. “It seems like a lot of the time the parents just don’t care,” he said. “It’s so sad.”

Sheri Hanni, the School Attendance Review Board coordinator for the Butte County Office of Education, in front of one of the agency’s locations.

Sheri Hanni is the Butte County Office of Education’s SARB coordinator and serves as an overseer of the county’s district boards. She’s a 25-year veteran of the office and has over the decades spent more time than perhaps anyone else in Butte County dealing with these parents and trying to get their children back in school.

She says she’s come to realize that punishing students and parents usually makes things worse — further alienating families who already feel like outsiders.

“For so many years we’ve taken the ‘mad mother’ approach,” Hanni said, mimicking a mother shaking her finger at a misbehaving child. “If that approach was going to work, it would have worked by now.”

The mad mother approach doesn’t go far in the Golden Feather Union Elementary School District, which serves several of the communities scattered in the mountains north of Oroville that are collectively referred to as “the ridge” by locals.

The district, which is composed of Concow Elementary, a K-8 school, and a continuation high school for at-risk students, enrolled 250 students for the entire 2017-18 school year, state records show. Half of them were chronically absent, according to the EdSource analysis, which is the sixth-highest rate in the state. Many of the families face the same problems of poverty and drugs seen in Oroville.

Josh Peete, who is both the district’s superintendent and principal of Concow Elementary, describes how his students turn into no-shows.

First off, the school bus is the only reliable transportation option for many Concow students and the ride can be 30 minutes or more. So, missing the school bus can easily mean missing a day of school. In other instances, a family trip into town leads to a lost school day, Peete said.

“Sometimes they’ll have a big day of shopping or taking care of family issues and won’t be able to pick their kids up after school,” Peete said. “So, we’ve got families basically sending their kids to school when they can.”

Annie is in 5th grade at Concow Elementary and though she’s had her ups and downs, she generally likes going to school. She speaks with pride about the trophy she earned for perfect attendance during the 2015-16 school year.

But when Annie graduates from the 8th grade, she said she wants to follow in the footsteps of her uncle and her sisters and be home schooled rather than go to high school in Oroville, where students from the ridge communities are often ostracized.

“Some of the Concow kids, they get bullied because they are different,” she said. “Some of them aren’t able to take showers every night, do their hair all the time…some of us, why we live in Concow is we aren’t very rich and it isn’t the most expensive place.”

The search for solutions

Reddam, the trauma therapist,  said he regularly hears students express similar misgivings about school as Annie does.

“What we see is that children’s experiences in education are associated with failure, with a sense of not belonging, with the sense of not being understood,” Reddam said.

The $15 million state-funded project to improve school climates and keep students in school will design programs to prepare teachers and administrators in restorative justice, social emotional learning and other supports that emphasize mediating conflicts and building healthy relationships in schools. If done right, the programs will lead to schools where the bullying Annie fears rarely happens.

If there are any positives coming out of the fire that swept through Butte County last November, it is that resources, including from many mental health professionals, have poured into the region to help with the recovery.

Yet, those in the trenches acknowledge that nothing happens unless they meet their students where they are.

Over the years, Kaylee got used to the eye rolls and brush-offs from some of her teachers when she’d come back from long absences. But things were different at Las Plumas.

Dan Ramos, the school’s principal, wanted to help her. And so did her guidance counselor, who she said was always checking in to see how things were going. Kaylee benefited from the kindness of teachers like Bethany Dorin, who had Kaylee for anatomy and biology.

“I would struggle sometimes in her classes, but she’d always take extra time to help as much as she could,” Kaylee said.

Dorin said she mentors anywhere from three to five students like Kaylee each year. She admits that it can “feel a little impossible to know how to move forward” with these students.

“It’s hard not to feel resentful of the situation,” Dorin said. “And it’s hard not to immediately judge that student and immediately judge that family.”

But Dorin stuck with Kaylee, mainly because she admired her honesty and her grit.

“She didn’t have a lot of shame, you know,” Dorin said. “Kaylee would come up and just blurt it all out. But then she would listen and ask questions until she realized ‘my gosh, I can get a good grade.’”

Kaylee graduated last June. And now is enrolled in Butte College, the local community college, with hopes of becoming a dental hygienist.

“My mom would be proud of me,” she said.

[This story was originally published by EdSource.]