Equity & Diversity

Absentee Rates Spike as Students Support Pro-Immigrant Action

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 09, 2006 4 min read
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Tens of thousands of students across the country began last week by staying out of school to join a nationwide boycott, organized mostly by Latinos, to oppose federal proposals that would crack down on illegal immigration.

Public school districts in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco reported higher student-absentee rates than usual on May 1, the day of the boycott. Some of the same districts also reported that teachers and staff members generally came to work as usual.

Particularly in California, students in heavily Hispanic districts took part in the national effort, which many immigrant leaders promoted as a way to dramatize immigrants’ contributions to U.S. society through their mass absence from work or school and by not patronizing stores or other businesses for a single day. Many boycotters joined in marches and rallies instead.

Susan Cox, a spokeswoman for the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, said 72,000 students in grades 6-12, or 27 percent of the students in those grades, were absent May 1.

More than 73 percent of the district’s K-12 students are Latino.

According to news reports, about 300,000 people in Los Angeles took to the streets that day to protest a measure approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in December that would make it a felony to be an undocumented immigrant.

The U.S. Senate, which failed on April 7 to reach agreement on an alternative measure, is expected to consider the issue again before it takes a break for Memorial Day.

Ms. Cox said that on about three previous days this spring, the school system had higher-than-usual absentee rates because students participated in immigrant-rights rallies. (“Students Sound Off on Immigration,” April 5, 2006)

Financial Losses

In California, schools receive most of their money from the state based on an average of student attendance reported on three different days each school year. But some pots of state aid are tied to actual daily attendance. Ms. Cox noted that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has said schools won’t be able to recover the costs from a high number of absences related to immigration rallies. “We don’t have numbers [yet] as far as what the loss is economically,” Ms. Cox added.

Nearly 20 percent of students in the San Diego school district were absent on May 1, said Dick Van Der Laan, the communications director for the district. Normally, about 5 percent of students would be absent, he said. About 42 percent of the district’s 132,500 students are Latino.

Mr. Van Der Laan said he’s not sure what the 26,400 students who were absent that Monday did during the day, because San Diego didn’t have an immigration rally scheduled during school hours. Instead, an immigrant-rights candlelight vigil was held in a San Diego park from 5:30 to 8 that evening, he noted.

In Chicago, some schools in predominantly Latino neighborhoods reported very high absentee rates. Only 17 percent of the 1,690 students attending Benito Juarez High School and 15 percent of the 2,429 students attending David Glasgow Farragut Career Academy, both in Mexican-American neighborhoods, were in school the day of the boycott, said Michael P. Vaughn, a spokesman for the 424,000-student Chicago school system.

News reports said more than 300,000 demonstrators took part in a pro-immigrant march in Chicago.

Unexcused Absences?

Most district officials interviewed last week said students were warned they would receive an unexcused absence for missing school to join the boycott. But the officials also said they recognized that schools were not necessarily adhering to that policy.

“The idea districtwide was that it was an unexcused absence and the work couldn’t be made up,” said Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the 72,000-student Denver public schools. “But some schools were taking a more friendly approach that this was a rare national day in which families were out together in the streets. I don’t think schools were in a position to draw a line in the sand.”

Linda Torres, the principal of Horace Mann Middle School in Denver, said that at her school, if a child had parental permission to participate in an immigration rally on May 1, the absence was considered excused. “Normally that wouldn’t be one of the official excused absences, but we want to support our families who want to participate,” she said.

In fact, 75 percent of the school’s 412 students—95 percent of whom are Latino—were absent that day.

“We carried on as normal,” Ms. Torres said. “We are committed to providing a rigorous curriculum every day of the week, and if they aren’t here, they miss out.”

At Annandale High School, in Annandale, Va., not far from the nation’s capital, Jennifer Sharp, an administrative assistant in the attendance office, said that 362 of the school’s 2,319 students, or a little over 15 percent, were absent. Of those out, 249 were Hispanic.

“Most of the parents said they were sick,” she said of the absentees. “About five parents said they participated in the boycott. I put it in [the computer] as ‘excused.’ We look at it as an educational event.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Absentee Rates Spike As Students Support Pro-Immigrant Action

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