On the morning of June 7, at least 25 police officers, social workers, and prosecutors, accompanied by a horde of television and print reporters, rolled out of a police substation in one of the poorest parts of San Diego. Fanning out across the neighborhoods of Paradise Hills, Grant Hill, City Heights, and elsewhere, the carefully orchestrated raid targeted 20 hapless parents who had failed to show up in court to answer for their children's truancy. This raid was staged by the office of Casey Gwinn, San Diego's politically ambitious city attorney, with the cooperation of the San Diego Unified School District. Hours later, six mothers were behind bars at county jail, and their children were parked, at least temporarily, with relatives or county social workers.
It was the first time in recent memory that such draconian measures have been taken to deal with what has long been one of the dirty little secrets of San Diego public schools: closely held statistics show that average daily attendance rates at many schools have been plunging for the last three years, and the trend shows no sign of abating. Yet, just weeks before Gwinn's office and San Diego police rounded up parents from some of San Diego's poorest neighborhoods, the school district quietly abolished its so-called "Targeted Truancy and Public Safety Program," a four-year-long effort to get to the root of the festering problem of absentees. Staffers in the office will not talk for the record, but some inside the district claim that the $250,000 used to run the program was needed to balance a badly out of kilter school-district budget.
Though the public has not been made privy to the disastrous attendance numbers, school-district officials have been huddling behind closed doors, worried because the attendance fall-off translates into a big drop in the cash payments the district receives from the state. The amount of money is pegged to average daily attendance rates, and the decline in this year's ADA could cost the San Diego district millions of dollars.
That's the real inspiration, some school staffers claim, for the Gwinn-led raid. Others say that San Diego police have lately become interested in using anti-truancy actions as a way to deal with newly rising crime rates and forcing juvenile delinquents back into school and off the streets.
San Diego police officers are active attendees at the school district's School Attendance Review Board (SARB), which decides which parents are to be issued citations, and have gone so far as to host SARB meetings at the city's four police substations, giving the group a tougher, pro-law enforcement cast.
The school-attendance numbers look bad across the board, but worse at schools in traditionally poorer neighborhoods, led by high schools like San Diego (87.29 percent), Hoover (87.37), Clairemont (87.66), Kearny (88.17), and Lincoln (89.14). The problem isn't limited to students at the poverty level. Attendance at both Point Loma and Clairemont High Schools is also below the 90 percent level. Nor are the district's elementary schools immune from the trend. Fletcher (83.92 percent), Cubberly (86.42 percent), and Dana (86.45 percent) are all found at the bottom of the list.
By comparison, schools in Orange County, Sacramento, and across the nation regularly boast attendance rates in the mid-90s. High schools in Fullerton and Sacramento report rates of 97 percent. Even states generally regarded as educational backwaters regularly post high rates, and some of America's worst inner-city schools have been doing better than San Diego. For instance, East St. Louis, a slum-ridden Illinois city across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, has a rate of 87.6 percent. St. Louis itself reports a rate of 89.3 percent. Public school attendance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is at 88 percent. At Oak Ridge High in Tennessee, attendance stands at 92 percent. At Jordan High, in Durham, North Carolina, it is 95 percent.
Opinions differ among experts about what level of average daily attendance signifies a true educational crisis, but it is generally agreed that San Diego has fallen into the danger zone. "Really bad attendance is 78 percent," says David Kopperud, a specialist with the California Department of Education. "Anytime you are anywhere near the 70s you are heading for big trouble and the 80s certainly aren't that great either." One of the worst school districts in California, Kopperud says, is Los Angeles Unified, where attendance regularly hovers slightly below 80 percent. "They lose $34 million a year" in state attendance payments, he notes. "You want to have a goal of being over 96 percent; that's good. If you're under that, you really need to work."
Paradoxically, says Kopperud, efforts to boost school test results often tempt school officials into discouraging disadvantaged pupils from attending school. "There are districts right now where the main focus is on test scores. And there's kind of an irony that happens here. These kids with poor attendance, a lot of principals hesitate to try to get them back into school because these kids are not going to bring up their test scores. And a lot of these principals feel that they're being really measured by how well their students score on tests.
"Well, if they go out and they collect all the kids that have awful attendance and bring them into their school, what's going to happen to their test scores? Their test scores are going to go down. So there's been a lot of talk about maybe one of the ways we ought to judge schools is not just by their tests but also by their attendance. And the problem with that is you have some communities where attendance is naturally high, where it's almost a given you're going to have 98 percent attendance, and there are others where it's miserable."
The discrepancy between San Diego haves and have-nots is made clear in the geographically differing attendance rates of its schools. Though no San Diego Unified high schools meet Kopperud's ideal 96 percent, Mira Mesa High, which has consistently hovered around 95 percent, comes close. Then comes Scripps Ranch at 94 percent, and La Jolla at 93.67. A few elementary schools, like Birney, with 98.84 percent and Johnson, at 96.54 percent, actually exceed the state guidelines. Most in the southern part of the district, however, fall woefully short, in some cases a full ten points below their northern peers.