Joint school district meeting. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu
Joint school district meeting. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu

Hollister School District and San Benito High School District joined forces on May 16 to address chronic absenteeism among students with its first Joint Attendance Initiative meeting at the Hollister High School library. 

Trustees from both district boards were presented with student attendance data from the last five years to determine the cause of chronic absenteeism, which is defined by the Education Code Section 60901(c)(1) as being absent 10% or more of the school days in a school year.

Hollister School District Assistant Superintendent Kip Ward said the chronic absenteeism rate in Transitional Kindergarten (TK) and Kindergarten has increased since the 2021-22 school year. He said in TK it grew from 40% to 44%; in Kindergarten it grew from 37.40% to 40%. 

These numbers are attributed to students in these grades getting “sick more regularly” and parents being “more protective when they are young,” according to Ward.

“Once they get to first grade, we kind of take a deep breath for the most part,” he said. “Typically, we see our Fs and Ds spike in [middle school] grades. If you think of middle school and all it entails, absences tend to step up.”

Though absentee rates for the 2022-23 school year in grades 6, 7 and 8 have dropped since the 2021-22 school year (from 40% to 25%, on average), the rates generally increase after grade 5. 

“When I was site principal, we had this same challenge,” Ward said of the absentee trend. “The way this graph looks—it’s nothing unfamiliar to me.”

Hollister High School’s chronic absentee numbers spiked from 2018-19 to 2021-22 up from 9% to 26.70%, according to the school’s Director of Student Support Services, Emmanuel Nelson. He said administrators were hopeful “things would return back to normal” once COVID-19 protocols were lifted.

“We recognized going into this year that we have a new normal,” said Nelson, noting that chronic absentee numbers in 12th grade increased 3% since the 2021-22 school year. 

One issue Nelson attributed to this ‘new normal’ is the increase in health precautions since the start of COVID. 

“I’ve had phone calls from parents who’ve sat with us when they’ve received these attendance letters who’ve said, ‘We did what you told us, we kept them home for you,’” Nelson said. 

Hollister School District Superintendent Erika Sanchez said the situation has led families to think “being absent is okay” for their children, which she feels has further impacted students already experiencing a lack of structure at home. 

“For some of these parents, school wasn’t a priority for them and college was never discussed,” HSD board trustee Elizabeth Martinez said. “So there are certain things, environmentally, that we may not ever be able to change.” 

Percentages of chronic absentee students in HSD for the in 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years. Image taken from Joint Attendance Initiative.

Issues such as single parent households, parents working more than one job, transportation limitations and juggling different school calendars have also exacerbated school absenteeism, Martinez said.

“Many times the older kids stay home to take care of the little ones, and I know that’s the case for Halloween,” she said. “We don’t have school that day, and I don’t know if that’s a huge impact [for the high school], but if we work more on collaborating so that we don’t cause major influxes in attendance for the high school, that would be also a good way to work together so that parents can rely on schools to be in [sync].”

Removing Nov. 1 from the academic calendar has been a topic HHS administrators have considered for some years, said high school district Superintendent Shawn Tennenbaum.  

“We’re definitely open to the idea,” he said. “If we can look at some data to find out how our attendance has been both on a staff and student level on the day after Halloween, we might be interested. We just don’t want a four-day holiday.” 

San Benito High School District trustee Patricia Nehme, who teaches kindergarten for Spring Grove School, said another issue is the misconception that TK and Kindergarten students are not “missing that much” when they are absent from class. 

“But kindergarten is not like it used to be,” she said. “They’ve got to come out reading—and they come in with nothing.” 

HSD trustee Lisa Marks suggested primary school teachers make a collaborative effort in educating families about the importance of TK and Kindergarten attendance, to emphasize that student success is tied to attendance.  

“How do we package that and have our teachers repeat it consistently to the child while they’re in the classroom, as well as getting it out to the parents and starting that culture that ‘I want to be in school from day one’?” she asked.

Nelson said both districts will be taking preemptive actions this summer ahead of the 2023-24 school year by establishing multiple interactions with families. Actions such as phone calls and home visits from counselors and superintendents are just some measures the administration will be taking. An attendance task force will also meet bi-monthly to examine the effectiveness of their interventions. 

“For us to be able to share a similar or identical message, we actually have to go out and do these [home visits] with you,” Tennenbaum suggested to the HSD trustees. “We may be giving a message that is completely different from what you are providing, or vice versa, and that family may have a child here and there.” 

His suggestion was met with agreement from both board’s members, and a proposal to meet again to share data and progress from the joint initiative in January 2024 was accepted by both boards. A Joint letter will be sent to all families from both superintendents in the summer, ahead of the Attendance Initiative launch in the fall.

“I’m looking forward to trying things out and then coming back to the table when we need to amend,” Marks said. “I just believe that communication is going to be key. It needs to be consistent; it needs to be the same.” 

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Jenny is a Hollister native who resides in her hometown with her husband and son. She attended Hollister schools, graduated from San Benito High School, and earned her bachelor’s degree in literature...