FIGHTING FOR OUR KIDS: Attorney General Kamala Harris has dug her heels into elementary truancy and commissioned a study in 2013: “In School on Track” that reveals why it is the number one concern among parents.
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From the moment Kamala D. Harris was sworn in as the 32nd Attorney General of the State of California in January 2011 as the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian to hold the office in the history of California, her focus has been foundational transformations to the law that will enhance and sustain African Americans for years to come.
Harris believes that every day is a day to celebrate Black History and was always inspired by what could be.
“I was raised with the belief that we could do any anything and it’s not in my DNA to be told that there are any limitations of what we can do,” she emphatically told the Sentinel recently from her Sacramento office.
As the state’s top chief law enforcement officer, Harris’ focus has been on combating transnational gangs that are trafficking guns, drugs, and human beings throughout California, but most importantly elementary school education.
The former two term district attorney of San Francisco commissioned a study to examine the scope, causes and effects of truancy and absenteeism in California. The study also focused on what law enforcement, parents, educators, non-profits, public agencies and concerned community members can and must do about this problem.
The results were startling. California is facing an attendance crisis, with dire consequences for our economy, our safety, and our children. Truancy and chronic absence occurs in elementary schools across the state, at rates that were deeply troubling.
According to the California Department of Education, 691,470 California elementary school children, or 1 out of every 5 elementary school students, were reported to be truant in the 2011-2012 school year. One school reported that more than 92% of students were truant in the 2011-2012 school year.
Estimates of truancy based on a sample of California school districts paint an even more alarming picture than the truancy statistics reported to the California Department of Education.
Those estimates indicate that in the 2012-2013 school year, approximately one million elementary school children in California were truant and almost 83,000 were chronically truant (missing 10% or more of the school year – calculated from the date of enrollment to the current date – due to unexcused absences).
The same sample reveals that hundreds of thousands of students in California are chronically absent from school. Over 250,000 elementary school students missed more than 10% of the school year (over 18 school days); and a shocking 20,000 elementary school children missed 36 days or more of school in a single school year.
“If a child is not achieving third grade reading level by the time they are in the third grade, they drop off and never catch up,” Harris said. “The vast majority of parents that we are talking about have a natural desire to parent their children well, but are under the mistaken belief that if they allow their kid to miss a little school they will catch up later, but the reality is very different from that belief.”
She believes there are several things that need to happen and is steadfastly implementing laws to address it.
“We are working to addresses these concerns. Elementary School truancy is the problem. One million in California were truant 2012-13 and more than 250,000 missed most of the school year.”
“I am saying to parents is your primary job is to get that child from the day that child is born through the end of third grade to be at third grade reading level.
Children need to be in class every day and it’s a vicious cycle and that ends with our kids are not going to middle school on a regular basis and subsequently drop out of high school. This is an urgent matter! My message to parents is get that child to school very single day and I am working with legislators in Sacramento to put in place some laws will require tracking it.”
She points to the success of African American pioneers such as Charles Drew and George Washington Carver as examples of what can be achieved.
“Black History Month holds the same significance as anything that focuses on American history, because Black History is the history of the United States of America,” she said. The significance of history reminds us of where we came from and it reminds us of how we arrive at the place where we are.”
Harris understands that the challenges are severe, but solvable.
“We have a lot of young parents who are high school drop outs themselves, and we want to say to them, ‘don’t be afraid.’ We want to make sure that parents know where there is help for them.”
The plight for Black men is even more alarming.
“An Africa American man who fails to graduate or is a high school drop out is 62 more percent likely to be in prison, or dead by the age of 34,” she revealed.
“You can look at a whole lot of untreated trauma in the community and the symptom is drug abuse because people start self medicating and they use these substances so they do not have to feel.”
The attorney general is steering a pilot program in Los Angeles for young adult offenders to help them obtain jobs, gain education and get parenting support.
It’s a program modeled after one she successfully started in San Francisco called back on track focused on 18-24 offenders. In SF it reduced the re-offense rate from 54 percent to 10 percent.
“ It’s is my intention to do that across the state of California and Los Angeles is going to be the pilot and its going to be the businesses community, church community and getting them in programs where they can stand on their feet and be productive instead of that first felon arrest and becoming a felon for life,” Harris concluded.