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San Diego Unified Singled Out As Attendance Boosting Model

Aired 4/3/12 on KPBS News.

San Diego Unified has is getting more kids to school every day. Officials said that means higher graduation rates, fewer drop outs and more money for schools.

— School attendance is up across all age levels and ethnic groups in San Diego's schools. Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, was in town Tuesday to recognize San Diego as one of 11 model districts for attendance improvement and the first large urban district to receive the award in its five year history.

San Diego Unified began using an online system in 2009 to track every student's attendance, graduation requirement completion and test performance. Three years later Superintendent Bill Kowba attributes the district's attendance gains to that system and to a commitment to using the information to reach out to chronically absent and struggling students.

"It was a mindset change that had to occur," he said. "Everybody from the board and superintendent down to the individual teacher and counselor had to make it a top concern to have kids in seats."

Kowba said school competitions also helped draw students, parents, teachers and other staff into the effort. The result was attendance rates increasing from about 95 to about 96 percent. Over the same period, the district's dropout rate has decreased from more than 9 percent to about 7 percent and graduation rates have increased to 90 percent. Kowba said the gains are likely a result of the same outreach that is getting more kids to class.

The California Department of Education's website already provides districts with parent letters in several languages and other resources aimed at helping districts boost attendance. It will soon include an overview of San Diego Unified's attendance program.

"You have a combination of the County Office of Education working with the local district. You have social service, law enforcement, health services," Torlakson said.

School districts receive state funding based on average daily student attendance. Increasing that average by half a percentage point over a single year means an additional $3 million for San Diego schools, according to John Lee Evans, president of the Board of Education.

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