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When Fresno Kids Miss School, District Loses $25 Million, and Kids Fall Way Behind
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By Nancy Price, Multimedia Journalist
Published 2 months ago on
February 29, 2024

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Fresno Unified could get $25 million more in state revenues if the district could increase attendance rates to pre-pandemic levels.

Absenteeism not only hurts district finances but also creates learning losses for students that can affect their entire educational career.

The district has embarked on a variety of strategies to inform families about the importance of regular attendance.


So far this school year Fresno Unified’s average daily attendance rate has been 91.3%, about three percentage points below the district’s pre-pandemic attendance rate.

That lower attendance rate is costing the district about $25 million yearly, chief financial officer Patrick Jensen told the School Board at a workshop Wednesday evening.

Daily attendance is a main factor in the state’s funding formula for schools, so when students miss even a day of school, it costs the district. The funding loss pinches finances since fixed costs — the cost for payroll, maintenance, utilities, buses, and more — remain the same.

Keeping kids in school becomes even more critical as the district faces projected enrollment declines in coming years. Before the pandemic, enrollments totaled nearly 71,000 students. This year the enrollment is 68,363, and enrollments are projected to drop to 67,462 next year and 66,562 the following year.

Board Clerk Valerie Davis has said she wants to tell parents that when their kids miss school, they should get out their checkbooks and write the district a check to compensate for the lost revenues.

Davis was one of four trustees at the workshop that reviewed what the district is doing to keep better track of student absences and then the steps taken to get kids into school. Absent from the student absence workshop were trustees Claudia Cazares, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, and Keshia Thomas.

Trouble Reading Because of Missed Days

Student Trustee Maritza Lua says he is a first-hand example of the other cost of student absences — lost learning.

Maritza Lua Portrait

“I still am struggling because of it. I’m still struggling to catch up.”  —  Student Trustee Maritza Lua, who often missed class in elementary school 

Maritza, who attends Sunnyside High School, told the School Board that because she missed a lot of school when she was in elementary school, she never really learned to read until seventh grade.

“I still am struggling because of it. I’m still struggling to catch up,” she said.

Maritza said she could confirm what Fresno Unified administrators said during the presentation about the importance of school staff giving students a reason to want to come to and stay in school.

“That really does affect everything,” she said. “I am here today because of staff members who I got very involved with, who I got to know.”

The workshop presentation included a printout showing the direct connection between student attendance and whether students were on track to pass their classes, to graduate, to have the A-G credits needed to attend a state university, and whether the student had faced disciplinary actions.

One student identified as a Hispanic 12th grader had already missed 60 days of school, was identified as “severely chronic” in absences, had D or F grades, and was off-track for graduation.

“The potential for them to misbehave is higher because they don’t understand what’s going on, and it’s a lot more comfortable to be in trouble than it is to look like you don’t know what you’re doing,” Superintendent Bob Nelson said.

‘Every Day Is a Rung on the Academic Ladder’

Students who start missing school in their early years — even just being tardy and missing the first part of the school day — lose out on learning that their schoolmates get, which are part of the building blocks for a successful education, Nelson said.

Fresno Unified absenteeism is highest among kindergarten and first graders. Kindergarten is not mandatory — Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a mandatory kindergarten law in 2022 — but schooling is mandatory for all 6-year-olds, no matter their grade level.

“Every day is a rung on the academic ladder,” he said. “Every day your child misses a rung on the academic ladder, there’s a potential that they slide backward.”

Nelson said the district is aware of an alarming trend, that absenteeism is highest among kindergarten and first graders. Kindergarten is not mandatory — Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a mandatory kindergarten law in 2022 — but schooling is mandatory for all 6-year-olds, no matter their grade level.

Nelson said the lower attendance rates may be a byproduct of the message that was sent to families during the pandemic to keep kids home when they were ill so as not to spread the virus.

For families of younger kids, that outlook is the norm, he said, adding, “We have to be intentional and say, hey, it’s really not the norm … we do need to get that message out there that hey, school is not really optional. It really is something that we want a kid to attend every day.”

Strategizing to Get Kids in School

District officials outlined strategies that are being undertaken that involve a variety of departments. School leaders are getting regular reports that highlight which students are missing school, as well as how many classes they are failing. That lets them pinpoint struggling students and take appropriate actions sooner rather than later.

Trustee Veva Islas, noting the high absence rates for homeless and foster youth, said the district needs to take into consideration the hardships those students face, and then adopt appropriate strategies to attract and keep them in school.

Trustee Veva Islas, noting the high absence rates for homeless and foster youth, said the district needs to take into consideration the hardships those students face, and then adopt appropriate strategies to attract and keep them in school.

That can extend beyond the school district’s usual purview of classroom education and can include advocating for apartment developers to set aside some units for low-cost, affordable housing, she said.

Trustee Andy Levine said he will be interested to learn about this year’s attendance rates at the district’s five new community schools, which provide services such as medical and mental health care to students and families. Levine said he wants to know whether having those services close to home is removing bars to student attendance.

The district will have that data by May, Deputy Superintendent Misty Her said. Officials are taking a close look at Fort Miller Middle School and its strategies, which include bringing absent students to school, she said.

The community schools are providing resources such as food pantries and linkages to services that can remove barriers that keep kids out of class, Her said.

“You’ll see more community-building … yeah, we see that work happening,” she said.

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Nancy Price,
Multimedia Journalist
Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email

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