Assistant Principals Meredith Hosseini, Bill Mocnik, Sue Puccinelli, Loren Shrader and Activities Director Carrie Ross introduce themselves to students on the first day of school at Aliso Niguel High School on August 15, 2023. File photo by Sarahi Apaez/for CUSD Insider

Attendance rate climbs in face of declining enrollment

By Greg Mellen

Slowly but surely students are spending more school days in the classroom, increasing average daily attendance across the District.

Among the vexing challenges in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, one that has been on everyone’s mind has been bolstering attendance rates back to levels seen before the pandemic forced schools to temporarily shutter and move to virtual learning.

Capistrano Unified has rebounded in each of the past two years and continues to focus on rebuilding its numbers and reducing chronic absenteeism as the District works toward reaching its attendance rate goal.

Overall, the District attendance rate was 95.4 percent as of November 2023, which was nearly 1.5 percent better than a year earlier, but is still short of the prepandemic level which was 96.7 percent in November 2019.

The biggest jump was in the transitional kindergarten (TK) to fifth-grade level, which saw a 1.8 percent increase to 95.47, while middle schools, grades 6 to 8, had the highest overall attendance rate at 96.01. Both rates were below prepandemic rates.

CUSD high schools continue to lag in overall attendance at 94.95 percent attendance, a climb of 1.06 percent but still short of the 96.28 percent attendance rate in 2019.

In December, Concordia elementary Principal Gretchen Fleming and Newhart Middle School Principal Michael Kim, whose schools had the biggest annual improvements in their respective categories last year, spoke at a Board Meeting about the strategies they used to pump attendance.

Both agreed it all comes down to communication and creating positive experiences for kids within the school environment.

“It’s really been about involving the community and making them a part of what we did,” said Fleming, who has become known at Concordia for the large white board she displays at the school’s weekly Flag Celebrations with updated attendance numbers.

With a 3.59 percent jump in attendance, Concordia outdistanced Laguna Niguel at 3.03 percent for the largest bump of any school in the district.

“Our goal is 96 percent. I’m always putting it out there for everybody to see,” said Fleming, who is in her fourth year at Concordia.

She would love to catch up to Castille Elementary in Mission Viejo. Castille had the highest enrollment percentage among TK-5 schools at 96.46, more than a percentage point above any other CUSD grade school and just 0.32 below the overall prepandemic average for CUSD grade schools.

In the middle school ranks, Kim, in his first year at the helm at Newhart, said, “We try to create a positive atmosphere.”

Newhart saw a 2.83 percent bump in attendance to 96.83 percent, the best among middle schools.

Tesoro High had the highest attendance of high school at 94.95 percent and the highest annual growth at 1.45 percent.

Keeping students engaged

Fleming and Kim said giving students, families, and the community a feeling of connection with the school as an integral part of the neighborhood is vital.

One way Newhart has done that is with a healthy schedule of schoolwide and multicultural events to connect with diverse communities. In late winter and early spring alone, for example, the school celebrated Black History Month and Persian and Lunar new years.

On campus, Kim said, “we just make sure we’re talking to and engaging kids to make sure their experience is as positive as possible.”

“On the back end we’re making sure we talk to the parents, the PTA, and at (events such as) Coffee with the Principal,” Kim said.

CUSD adopted a new motto this year: “You Belong Here.” Fleming has put in great effort to embrace that sentiment, showcasing the phrase on t-shirts and marquees throughout the school.

Both teachers talked about the importance of students remaining engaged even when their families remove the students from school for extended trips while school is in session. While students are away from school, both principals said, the school will provide materials so the students can keep up with their studies via independent study and remain in good standing.

“We make sure it works for them,” Fleming said.

Both principals say they work with staff to educate families about chronic absenteeism, its adverse consequences, and strategies to avoid it. The State of California considers 10 days of absences for one school year, for any reason, excessive. CUSD is improving in this area too, reducing chronic absenteeism by 3.3 percent in 2023.

Fleming said even seemingly minor absences throughout the year can add up quickly to become a problem.

“Attendance is just a small effort repeated day in and day out,” she said.

Dwindling population

Like the rest of the state, CUSD schools have seen a gradual drop in overall number of students since about 2017 after plateauing in the early 2000s.

A modest decline had been forecast to continue before the pandemic led to record year-over-year statewide enrollment declines. As a result, the highest attendance rates possible within that population becomes all the more critical.

Despite the declining overall numbers, CUSD schools remain above state averages in attendance.

According to EdSource, average daily attendance plummeted from 95.9 percent in 2019-20 to 91.01 percent in 2021-22  and only climbed to 92.5 percent, based on data through the first 30 days of the 2022-23 school year, based on data from 100 districts.

Kim said a high attendance rate is important because it brings stability to the community.

“We’re excited with our growth and we just hope we can continue to grow. All credit goes to the community and our students who are representing themselves on campus. They’re coming to school, that’s the most important thing.”

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