Superintendent Interview Series

Chronic Absenteeism & Student Mental Health: A Conversation with Superintendent Paul Fawcett, Lucia Mar Unified School District


Daybreak Health CEO Alex Alvarado talks to Superintendents from across the country to discuss topics and trends affecting their school communities like chronic absenteeism, student mental health, academic outcomes, and more. These Superintendents represent districts from urban to rural, large to small, and range in their minority enrollment and number of students who are economically disadvantaged. Our goal is to capture different voices and perspectives on the challenges facing our schools today.

Chronic Absenteeism & Student Mental Health: A Conversation with Superintendent Paul Fawcett, Lucia Mar Unified School District

As part of our ongoing Superintendent Interview Series, Superintendent Fawcett from Lucia Mar Unified School District in California shared valuable insights into the strategies and initiatives being implemented to improve chronic absenteeism and support student mental health in schools. 

A Focused Effort on Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

Superintendent Fawcett expressed optimism about the current school year, highlighting the positive outcomes resulting from investments in attendance efforts. Since the pandemic, there has been a shift in family perspectives on attendance and parents are more willing to let their kids miss school. Efforts to mitigate these challenges include educating families on attendance guidelines, the importance of being in school, and the learning loss that happens when students aren’t in school.  

All of Lucia Mar’s school leaders acknowledged at the beginning of the year that improving attendance was a key goal. Principals from across the district have been actively engaging families through attendance campaigns, emphasizing the importance of regular school attendance for both academic and social-emotional growth. Communication with families has been a very important part of the effort through weekly newsletters, text messages, and in-person events. And, they’ve created fun ways to incentivize attendance for students with games, awards, and prizes.

He shared, “We have a philosophy of create once, share multiple times. So, after you create a message that you send out on those platforms, we also ask the Principals to share that message through their social media accounts and post it on their websites.”

Early indicators show promising trends in attendance rates, attributing success to these focused efforts. He emphasized, “When kids are in school, teachers can do their job which is to help students learn academically and on the social emotional front. We’ve seen our attendance rates going back up because of our efforts.”

Investing in Mental Health Support

A significant focus has been placed on bolstering mental health support for students. Initiatives such as implementing in-school counseling programs at elementary school levels and adding licensed therapists at middle and high schools underscore the commitment to addressing students' diverse needs. Superintendent Fawcett shared that in prior years they’ve only had 1 counselor for every 3 schools. Now, each school has a counselor which allows them to serve more students. At their high schools, advisory programs have been revamped to incorporate social-emotional learning alongside traditional college and career planning, fostering a holistic approach to student development.

Superintendent Fawcett said that, “Before if a student exhibited extreme behaviors, whether it was a behavior escalation in a classroom or on a school site, it was a rarity. Now these extreme behaviors are happening more frequently. This shift is disruptive not only to the student who is dysregulated but also to the students and classes that they're in.

Lucia Mar has also put a new teletherapy program into place. Through Daybreak, middle and high school students can meet 1:1 with a licensed clinician. If a student is elementary-aged, the program is designed to include their parent/guardian in the sessions. Since sessions are virtual, students can meet with their clinician at a time that is most convenient for them—including before and after school, on Saturdays, and school breaks—and families don’t have to take time away from work bringing their child to an appointment. This program has made mental health support more accessible to all students and is offered at no cost to families. 

Sustainable Funding for Mental Health Services

Funding school-based mental health services remains a concern, particularly in the wake of reduced post-pandemic funding levels. Superintendent Fawcett highlighted the importance of ongoing advocacy and leveraging local control accountability plans (LCAPs) to secure sustained funding for ongoing student mental health support.

Superintendent Fawcett encouraged other superintendents to prioritize student mental health and devise comprehensive plans to address these needs. By doing this, schools can create an environment conducive to both academic success and overall student wellbeing.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.