Dena Murphy

Dena Murphy has been appointed director of Human Services for Kern County.

In order for students to get the most out of the education system and be able to maintain an acceptable level of self-sufficiency as adults their school attendance is vital. A missed school day is a lost opportunity for a student to learn. Students who attend school regularly at an early age not only are likely to graduate from high school but do well throughout their school years.

Studies show that low income students are four times more likely to be chronically absent than others for reasons they have no control over. Reasons may include unstable housing or no housing at all, unreliable transportation, dysfunctional parent/caregiver due to mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse.

Absenteeism and its negative effects start early. Research indicates that one in 10 kindergarteners and first grade students miss at least a month worth of school every year. If absenteeism continues by the time the child is in eighth grade the knowledge of basic subjects such as reading, math and Social Studies is lower than the academic standard.

That is why it is so important to stress to students, parents and the community the importance and benefits of attending school. Students missing 10 percent of school, or about 18 days, have a low academic performance and will struggle during the course of the school year. This often leads to negative behavior that can result in dropping out of high school. The harsh impact of missing school whether excused or unexcused is the same.

There are many proactive steps parents can take to encourage a child to attend school. They can speak positively about the importance of attending school and set clear expectations, create a routine for getting ready to go to school that is stress free, and talk about the positive social aspect of meeting new friends and teachers. Building a strong parent/teacher relationship allows for open communication and can break down barriers that a student might be experiencing. Developing good school attendance must start with the parents/caregivers.

Up until January 2015 the Department of Human Services required proof of school attendance as a requirement for the CalWORKs program at application and renewal process. When a child under the age of 16 was not attending school regularly the adult(s) were removed from the cash aid grant amount. If the child 16 years or older was not attending school regularly the child was removed from the cash aid grant.

This allowed us to address any barriers the family might be experiencing in order to assist in ensuring the child was attending school. Barriers included, but were not limited to, mental health referrals, assisting with transportation and providing health care coverage.

Currently, with the passing of Assembly Bill 2382, we no longer request verification of school attendance at application or renewal. The Department can no longer reduce the cash aid amounts if a child under the age of 16 is not attending school. However, the Department continues to support and encourage parents in the importance of having their children attend school regularly. If the Department becomes aware of chronic absences of a child, an assessment is done to determine if the family is eligible for Family Stabilization services.

The Department in conjunction with our partnering agencies such as the Kern High School District, Superintendent of Schools and Clinica Sierra Vista, continue to strive for and advocate for higher attendance in our local schools. The message is clear. School attendance does matter and every school day counts in a child’s life.

Dena Murphy is director of Human Services for Kern County.

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