SFUSD, UC Berkeley Launch Research Project to Engage Youth Inquiry to Reduce Inequalities in Chronic Absenteeism

SFUSD, UC Berkeley Launch Research Project to Engage Youth Inquiry to Reduce Inequalities in Chronic Absenteeism

Press Release

San Francisco (October 2, 2020) - The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) have launched a joint research project to advance SFUSD’s equity goals by engaging youth-led inquiry to reduce inequalities in chronic absenteeism. SFUSD and UC Berkeley are among the recipients of the William T. Grant Foundation’s 2020 Institutional Challenge Grant competition, jointly funded this year by the Spencer and Doris Duke Charitable Foundations.

The research aims to engage directly with students through youth-led participatory action research (YPAR) to identify promising levers to reduce chronic absenteeism (i.e. students who are absent 10% or more days each year). It focuses particularly on four historically underserved subgroups within the district: African American students, students in foster care, students who are marginally housed or homeless, and students receiving special education. 

While SFUSD has implemented a range of interventions to address chronic absenteeism, systematically integrating students’ perspectives and suggestions into the process of developing interventions is an underutilized strategy. 

Leaders at SFUSD are working with Professor Emily Ozer, in the School of Public Health, and Professor Susan Stone, in the School of Social Welfare, both at UC Berkeley. This collaboration will enable leaders to incorporate evidence from youth voice to develop a better understanding of the causes of inequities in chronic absenteeism in SFUSD and to design interventions to alleviate these inequities.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and SFUSD’s fall semester beginning with distance learning, the research team has adjusted its approach to chronic absenteeism in accordance with CA AB-77 (Sec 43509), which outlines expectations for local educational agencies to monitor student participation and engagement during distance education. Researchers will pay close attention to a variety of sources of information about students' online attendance, participation, and engagement. 

“The shift to distance learning during the pandemic provides us with an opportunity to look more expansively at different indicators of engagement, to try to better understand what may be affecting students' participation in school,” said Dr. Norma Ming, Ph.D., Supervisor of Research & Evaluation in the SFUSD Research, Planning, & Assessment Department. “We will also be coupling this with additional information from the ongoing wellness checks, to help us learn more about relevant out-of-school factors that influence students' opportunities to fully engage in school.”

“This research is a tremendous opportunity for long-term benefits to our students most in need,” Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews said. “SFUSD is committed to using the study’s findings to address high and disparate rates of chronic absenteeism.”

The partnership will analyze administrative records and conduct in-depth interviews with youth to deepen understanding of the barriers to and facilitators of attendance as well as the perceptions of the district’s current interventions. The team will partner with school-based Peer Resources classes to leverage youth perspectives about school climate and help the partners develop and implement new interventions. Through its longstanding partnership with San Francisco Peer Resources, SFUSD has built a strong foundation of supporting students to engage in youth-led research to investigate questions of immediate relevance to them as they strive to create a more just world. 

Since opening schools to distance learning this fall, SFUSD’s average daily attendance (ADA) has been 95.8%, similar to the 96.8% ADA at the same point in time last year when schools were open to in-person learning.  While the ADA has remained relatively stable, absenteeism among historically underserved youth remains higher than that of other subgroups, with ADA among African American, Pacific Islander, and Latinx students, as well as foster youth and students experiencing homelessness, lower than the district average. 

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