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Centennial tries later starts to improve attendance
The Centennial School District moved back the start times for all its schools in accordance with research showing a wide range of benefits for students. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Sophomore Sabina Khalidova has mixed feelings about Centennial High School’s starting school 30 minutes later this year.
“I’m actually on time now,” she said, which had not been the case before. But she also leaves school early more often, as the corresponding later end time conflicts with her sports schedule.
On the whole, though, she said she is getting more sleep, which helps her in class.
Centennial School District moved all its school start times back 30 minutes this year. The research-supported decision is one of the east Portland-area district’s more visible attendance improvement measures, and early reports indicate the change is helping.
The Student Success Act named regular attendance as one of its metrics for Student Investment Account grants because students can’t learn if they are not in school. Students who are chronically absent, missing more than 10% of the school year, are more likely to fall behind, drop out and end up in the juvenile justice system, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
The attendance focus dovetails with the act’s imperative to help historically underserved student groups, which often have the most attendance problems. Poverty is an absenteeism high-risk factor, and attendance problems often arise from environmental barriers outside the student’s control, such as responsibility for a younger sibling or lack of transportation.
Centennial, which has one of the state’s highest absentee rates, has instituted a wide range of attendance-related initiatives. The district has increased messaging to parents, trained staff to look for and respond to absenteeism warning signs, added staff to focus on attendance, and created supports and encouragements for students, among other things.
Oregon’s statewide student chronic absenteeism rate was 20% for 2018-19, one of the worst in the country.
For 2018-19, Centennial reported 28% of its students were chronically absent, a 1 percentage point improvement from the previous year while the state average remained the same. Through October this school year, Centennial’s chronic absenteeism is trending downward, with a 2 percentage point decrease year over year.
“We’re seeing some wins, which is exciting,” said Denise Wright, director of student services.
In 2018, the Centennial Student Advisory Team asked the school board to explore later school start times. Some students were getting on buses as early as 6 a.m.
School Board Chair Pam Shields said the evidence supporting a change was clear.
Later start times have been shown to increase attendance as well as improve physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
District surveys also showed strong community and student support.
At that point, it became a budget question, Shields said. Although the board wanted to move start times an optimal hour later, the additional transportation costs would have been too much, Shields said. The board decided 30 minutes, though, would be better than nothing, Shields said.
Starting this year, the high school day begins at 8:10 a.m. and the middle school day starts at 9:35. Some elementary schools start at 8:20, and some start at 8:50. The school day length stayed the same.
Student, staff and family reaction has been mostly positive.
School board student representative senior Travis Huynh told the board the later start made the beginning of the day “calmer,” with students feeling more ready for the day.
Parents whose work schedules weren’t affected also said the later starts made mornings less rushed, with more time for sleep and breakfast. Morning commutes are in full light, even in the heart of winter, especially important for students walking to school. The later school day also means less unsupervised time after school waiting for parents to get off work.
Staff hours have stayed largely the same, with work periods moving to the morning rather than the afternoon. That can be a mixed blessing for teachers. With bus and activity schedules, it’s easier for students to arrive before school for help than stay after school, but teachers say students aren’t always as ready to learn before school starts.
Later school days also push sports practices and other activities into the evening and can mean missed class time to attend contests, particularly with junior varsity sports. It also means less evening time for other engagements.
Centennial Middle School moved an elective period to the end of the day so that students weren’t missing core content if parents had to pick them up early for appointments.
Wright said the district is still doing surface work with messaging, setting up systems and becoming more culturally responsive. The deep changes of removing barriers and connecting students to school to sustain better attendance rates will take longer, she said.
Centennial High School Assistant Principal Terrance Schloth said “nudge letters” that let parents know their child is at risk have generated a lot of parent communication. He also pointed to incentive programs to encourage attendance. For instance, students must have 90% attendance to attend school dances. Celebrations and raffles reward students who improve their attendance.
He said they have partnered with community agencies such as the multicultural youth leadership program REAP Inc. to find ways to encourage student attendance.
“It takes a lot of work by a lot of people to make it go,” he said.
Centennial is among 27 Oregon school districts with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism receiving targeted ODE grants and support to address attendance under a statewide plan.
The 2015 Oregon Legislature directed ODE to develop a statewide chronic absenteeism plan. ODE launched its Every Day Matters campaign last year, with advice and toolkits, and has funded 10 regional capacity builder positions hired by education service districts.
ODE’s targeted grants aim for three key goals. Districts should have a two-way communication tool because the research shows parents’ being able to reply to schools helps with attendance. Districts should have a student information system to identify students at risk and intervene. The grants also support creating teams to set up interventions.
ODE Education Specialist Terra Hernandez said Centennial has done a laudable job of examining systems and structures. The district did a root-cause analysis of why students weren’t showing up and used data to make system changes and remove barriers.
Hernandez said districts should find ways to address their communities’ unique needs.
“We need to try some different avenues and routes,” Hernandez said. “We don’t know what we don’t know until we step into it and see if it works.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA