Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

In time for the new school year, educators are reminding parents that it's crucial for students to be in class rather than skipping out for vacations or extra sleep.

The Calaveras County Office of Education is launching an outreach campaign this fall, titled "Every Day Counts," to bring down what county Superintendent of Schools Kathy Northington described as high truancy and absenteeism rates there.

"We're hoping to target the community and the parents who don't understand the severity of not being in school," Northington said.

Of special concern to teachers and principals is chronic absenteeism, which the law defines as missing more than 10 percent of the days in a given school year, and truancy - skipping school with no valid excuse.

California law defines a truant as a student who has missed more than 30 minutes of instruction without a valid excuse three times during the school year.

Calaveras County had 2,293 of its 6,074 students reported as truant at least once in 2011-12, the last school year with data available from the California Department of Education.

That equates to a truancy rate of 35 percent, higher than the state's overall rate of about 29 percent. Tuolumne County's truancy rate was a much lower 20 percent.

Northington said her campaign will focus on both truancy and chronic absenteeism with permission from parents, since any kind of absence can quickly set a student behind.

Studies have shown that chronically absent kindergartners are more likely to struggle with reading. Truancy in older students is a strong predictor that a student will drop out, according to Attendance Works, an initiative to improve national and state attendance rates.

Principal Susan Moffitt, of Tenaya Elementary School in Groveland, said absences leave "holes" in a student's education.

She often checks attendance records for struggling students and finds a clear cause in missed school time. Repeated tardiness is a problem, too.

"They walk in late, and the teacher has to stop what they're doing and get them caught up, and it's embarrassing" for the student, Moffitt said.

She added that absenteeism and tardiness force teachers to spend extra time catching a student up, which ultimately hurts the entire class.

Empty seats have financial repercussions for school districts that get most of their funding from the state, whose payments to schools are based on student attendance, said Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Mark Campbell.

Campbell said increasing school attendance by even 1 percentage point would be a "significant" improvement in funding for Calaveras Unified School District, perhaps enough to hire more teachers.

"We've been kind of singing that song for the last five or six years, bombarding parents with information about the importance of being in school," Campbell said.

Given compulsory education laws, truancy and irregular attendance can come with serious consequences for parents.

Many California counties have a School Attendance Review Board, or SARB, that deals with absentee and truancy cases that school districts have already tried to address.

Tuolumne and Calaveras counties' SARBs consist of representatives from several local organizations, including behavioral health and child welfare departments, law enforcement agencies, school districts and nonprofits.

Most often parents are the ones under scrutiny from the SARB, not students. That's because they're ultimately responsible for their child's school attendance, said Northington, who chairs Calaveras County's "very active" SARB board.

In some truancy cases, parents simply don't bother with getting their students out of bed or ready for class. Other factors can include family conflict, bullying and learning difficulties, which representatives on SARB boards try to address so a student can return to school.

Calaveras County's SARB heard 170 cases last year, representing all the habitual truancy cases in the county, Northington said. Of those cases, many were for both attendance and behavioral issues.

Forty-nine cases went to the District Attorney's Office. Many result in fines of $400 to $500, Northington said.

Other possible penalties include community service, weekend classes and a loss of driving privileges for the student, plus heftier fines and even jail time for parents.

But Moffitt said improving school attendance is also about attitude.

"When you have a (parent) where their experience in school was not positive, they kind of project that onto their child and the cycle continues," she said.

"What we have to do is break that cycle and have them understand that education is very positive, very rewarding and very liberating."