School might not be every student's favorite place to be early in the morning, but maintaining stellar attendance every year brings academic and life success.

That's the message local educators and community leaders stressed to an auditorium full of North High School students to kick off School Attendance Awareness Month and bring awareness to chronic absenteeism.

Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow said a new school year is a fresh start, and for those students who have missed several days in the past, this could be the year to turn over a new leaf.

In Kern County, more than 12 percent of all students kindergarten through 12th grade miss 18 or more days of school, which is more than 24,000 students across the county, Barlow said. Those stats make Kern County students chronically absent at a higher rate than the California average.

"When people think of chronic absence, they generally have a vision of a student misbehaving or willfully skipping school. But really, a lot of times, it's out of the student's control," she said. "It could be circumstances such as chronic illness, unreliable transportation, sometimes homelessness, sometimes an underlying family issue at home or sometimes because they don't feel supported at school."

In addition, 83 percent of students chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade cannot read on-level by third grade. By seventh grade, chronic absence becomes a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school. High school drop outs are less likely to qualify for gainful employment and are more likely to be incarcerated and on public assistance programs.

"This is really important for life positions. Be in school every day," Barlow said.

To improve chronic absenteeism, the Truancy Reduction and Attendance Coalition of Kern and the Kern Education Pledge Attendance Workgroup are working to identify the root causes of skipping school throughout the county to develop and introduce strategies.

All of the schools in the Kern High School District and others throughout the county are also encouraged to adopt a new outreach campaign, Strive for Less Than Five. Students should aim for five or fewer absences this school year by maintaining a regular bedtime and morning routine, staying home only when sick, going on family vacations during scheduled school breaks and making appointments after school.

Two students who had a history of chronic absenteeism but managed to turn things around shared their stories and were awarded the Daryl Thiesen Attendance Improvement Award.

Amari Solorzano, a student at West High School, had an unstable home environment and began isolating herself, which led to missing school and falling behind, as well as depression, anxiety and self-harm.

Without any support from her immediate family members, she chose to leave home and pursue a better life for herself, surrounded by individuals who want to help her improve.

"My great-grandmother stepped in to look after me, which was the biggest blessing I could have gotten," she said. "My grandmothers, my aunt, my brother and my school counselor became my support system when the anxiety became took much. When it all became overwhelming, they were my peace. They're the reason for my improvement."

Edison Middle School eighth grader Emery McDonald-Delozier had 23 absences during her first semester in seventh grade, but had a fresh start second semester with zero absences.

KHSD Superintendent Bryon Schaefer said the district has focused its efforts to expand the Truancy Outreach team, adding two additional interventionists and a social worker who are regularly out in the community. Last year the team conducted 1,240 visits and family contacts. 

Through those efforts, he said annual attendance in the district has increased over the past five years, with 95 percent of students at school every day. There have also been 35,000 fewer absences in the last five years.

"This is good, but we've still got work to do," he said.

For more information, visit www.kernstayinschool.org.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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