Poverty, isolation drive students away from school in California’s rural districts

It was a wonder Kaylee Adkins ever made it to school.

The daughter of two heavy drug users, she lived a transient childhood — rarely staying for long in the same apartment, let alone the same school. She hardly saw her father who was in jail or prison throughout much of her childhood.

Kaylee’s circumstances caused her to routinely miss school days from the time she was in kindergarten through her high school years. The state now identifies students like her, who miss at least 10 percent of the school year, as “chronically absent.” It’s a problem that impacts school districts everywhere but is most acute in rural areas and small towns.

When Kaylee, now 20, was in grade school, her mother’s pattern was to stay in a place until the eviction notice came, then run. Sometimes it would be to another part of Oroville, a rural town of about 15,000 people in Northern California’s Butte County where her family was from. Other times it would be out of state to small towns in Texas or West Virginia.

Both of Kaylee’s parents died during her high school years and she ended up living with one of her older sisters, who had a teenage daughter about Kaylee’s age who had two young kids of her own. That made Kaylee a great aunt at the age of 16 and she was expected to stay home to take care of the children.

Though they lived just a few blocks from Las Plumas High in the Oroville Union High School District, Kaylee missed all or part of 54 days — nearly a third of her senior year, her attendance records show.

“I was always like one step behind,” Kaylee said in a recent interview. “Going to school was always dependent on what my family needed.”

She was among the 26 percent, or about 600 students, at Oroville Union High School District who were chronically absent during the 2017-18 school year, according to an EdSource analysis of California Department of Education data.

Statewide, more than 700,000 students, or about 11 percent, were chronically absent. About 10 percent of the 1,000 districts statewide had rates near the level of Oroville Union High’s or significantly higher. Most of those districts were in rural areas, the analysis found:

  • Of the 98 districts with rates higher than 20%, 84 were in rural areas.

  • Of the 27 districts with rates higher than 30%, 26 were in rural areas.

  • Of the 40 counties where rates were above the statewide average, 30 are rural as identified by Rural County Representatives of California, a statewide group.

Students who are regularly missing school can be found in cities, suburbs and small towns throughout California and the United States.

In Merced County, even the most urban centers see double-digit absenteeism. Merced Union High School District has a more than 16% rate of chronically absent children, while Merced City School District’s rate is higher than 11 percent.

More rural districts like Los Banos Unified (14%) and Dis Palos Oro Loma Joint Unified (18%) also struggle with higher rates.

Chronic absenteeism takes a toll on almost all aspects of student success and well-being, according to a large body of research. A student can fall significantly behind in their classwork after missing just a week.

As more time is missed, the connections to school begin to fray. Students become more likely to use drugs and engage in other unhealthy behaviors, the research shows. And in the end, they are more likely to drop out.

A call to action

These realities have been present in California’s rural districts for decades, yet only recently became visible to educators, parents and youth advocates.

The state has long tracked schools’ truancy rates, but that only accounts for unexcused absences. It wasn’t until the 2016-17 school year that the state started reporting details on all absences - unexcused, excused and those due to suspension.

The state used that information to generate a chronic absenteeism rate and included it on the California School Dashboard, the statewide report card for schools. On the state dashboard, schools with chronic absenteeism rates ranging from more than 10 percent to 20 percent are labeled as “high.” Rates above 20 percent are considered “very high.”

The state’s action to collect more information on why students were missing school came after more than a decade of advocacy on the issue, most notably by Hedy Chang and her San Francisco-based organization, Attendance Works. Chang sees absenteeism as a serious threat to student achievement in every school, but she worries particularly about how it has overwhelmed rural communities.

“It’s only in the past year and a half that people have realized they have a problem,” Chang said. “And in rural areas they have the fewest resources and the least access to the newest information about how to combat this.”

The battle has become even more difficult in Butte County since November, when the Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise and neighboring communities. The wildfire killed 85 people, making it the deadliest in California history. It also destroyed or badly damaged several schools in the Paradise Unified School District and a handful of charter schools.

The tragedy upended the school lives of thousands of students and families leaving many traumatized, scrambling for not only which school to attend but where to sleep.

“We were already hurting for school-based interventions for mental health…How do we deal with absenteeism? How do we deal with a growing sense of students not feeling a part of their system and their community?” said Matt Reddam, a consulting trauma therapist with the Butte County Office of Education. “And the fires really just magnified that.”

On the surface, explanations of why students don’t come to school can be as simple as the logistics of living in far-flung places and the challenges of getting students to and from school. But also contributing are socioeconomic conditions in rural communities that have deteriorated in recent decades and, in certain remote areas, a long-held cultural distrust of schools and other institutions among residents.

Butte County, located about 80 miles north of Sacramento and with over half of its population living in small towns or remote communities, is in the heart of rural California.

Starting in the Gold Rush years and lasting into the early 20th century, natural beauty and robust mining and timber industries brought newcomers in droves. By the 1980s these industries were in decline, sapping the area’s economic vitality and opening the door for drugs, higher crime rates and other urban ills that rural areas were once immune to.

Butte lags the state averages in most measures of socioeconomic health. It has higher rates of unemployment, poverty and single parent households; a lower median income and a smaller percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees, according to Federal Reserve data and U.S. Census estimates.

Butte leads all California counties in reports of what are known as “adverse childhood experiences,” which can include everything from a divorce or a death in the immediate family to parental drug use and physical and sexual abuse.

The search for solutions

Sheri Hanni is the Butte County Office of Education’s SARB coordinator and serves as an overseer of the county’s district boards. She’s a 25-year veteran of the office and has over the decades spent more time than perhaps anyone else in Butte County dealing with these parents and trying to keep children in school.

She says she’s come to realize that punishing students and parents usually makes things worse — further alienating families who already feel like outsiders.

“For so many years we’ve taken the ‘mad mother’ approach,” Hanni said, mimicking a mother shaking her finger at a misbehaving child. “If that approach was going to work, it would have worked by now.”

Educators and advocates in Butte County and a growing number of areas in rural California have become leaders statewide in the search for solutions. They formed a multi-county coalition called the Rural Education Network and made chronic absenteeism one of its signature issues.

Additionally, the Butte County Office of Education, along with its counterpart in Orange County and the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, is leading a project, funded by a $15-million state grant, to develop programs and strategies aimed at creating better school climates and keeping students in school.

The project will design programs to prepare teachers and administrators in restorative justice, social emotional learning and other supports that emphasize mediating conflicts and building healthy relationships in schools.

For more reporting and analysis on California education trends and issues, visit