- News Center
- News stories
Oregon chronic absence numbers don’t tell current stories
Clatskanie Middle/High School Senior Stephen Hartley (red shirt), the analog game club’s chess champion, said his dual-credit schedule allows him to leave early on Wednesdays but he stays just for the school clubs. Clatskanie School District leaders say clubs catering to student interests once a week are helping improve attendance. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Senior Mikayla Hull, who typically has good attendance, needed some days off this stressful school year to “unwind.” Then she needed to skip more days to catch up on the work she missed, putting her in danger of becoming chronically absent.
The Clatskanie Middle/High School student services wouldn’t let her fall through the cracks, though. Hull said they were “amazing” at motivating her to improve her attendance and stay on track to graduate.
Research shows poor attendance is associated with lower student achievement. School districts all over Oregon saw attendance falter this year as students such as Hull struggled with the pandemic and broken school habits. Using a range of interventions and personal connections, though, some schools are improving attendance numbers in recent months.
School districts report attendance numbers for the whole year to the Oregon Department of Education this month. Many school leaders expect chronic absences to be higher than in 2018-19, the last normal year.
In 2018-19, 20% of Oregon students were chronically absent, defined as missing 10% or more of the school year. The 2019-20 school year was cut short by COVID-19, and for 2020-21, the definition of “attending” was different for distance learning, making the data not comparable. Schools will report attendance this year using the same state rules as 2018-19 even as schools struggle with disengaged students beset by illnesses and quarantines and disconnected by masks, online classes and trauma.
Malheur ESD Superintendent Mark Redmond said attendance is a bigger concern for area districts than it has been in the recent past. He said his districts are asking for an attendance specialist and more support for high schools.
Schools around the state are trying to add staff time to rebuild relationships with students, which helps deter chronic absenteeism.
According to ODE, the state doesn’t have a mechanism to penalize schools for low attendance rates, but struggling schools receive extra support and can be subject to department interventions. If long-term goals aren’t being met, the department can step in with responses such as coaching to uncover root causes, professional learning on culturally responsive practices and help engaging families.
The Clatskanie School District northwest of Portland had a 34% chronically absent rate in 2018-19, one of the state’s highest. It received targeted support and a grant under ODE’s Every Day Matters program. The Legislature created the Every Day Matters program under ODE in 2016 to give additional support.
The district assigned staff specifically to help students who were frequently absent. They did little things such as buying alarm clocks for students and calling homes, and they connected with students and families to find how they could help. They also offered incentives for good attendance and positive reinforcement for every victory.
Distance learning and increased caution about illnesses disrupted the district’s efforts, though.
“We are starting from scratch again, but with a better idea of more motivational things for kids,” Superintendent Cathy Hurowitz said.
It appears to be working. The chronically absent rate has been cut roughly in half – about 20% for the middle/high school and 14% at the elementary level, according to Hurowitz.
Administrators have seen a marked improvement since the middle/high school’s Wednesday clubs started in January. Students attend two small-group clubs in the afternoon after early release from the regular academic schedule. Dozens of clubs, such as photography or robotics or card games, cater to students’ interests.
Senior Aaron Adkinson is in a club building a racing lawnmower. He said the clubs make students want to come to school.
Hull, who uses a club period for a study hall, said the social time is key.
“It’s definitely helpful to sit down with my friends and just hang out,” she said.
Another major factor has been moving the middle school and high school start time later to 9 a.m., Hurowitz said. Research shows older students do better with a later start.
“Without these initiatives, we would be looking at a crater,” Hurowitz said.
Clatskanie School Board Chair Megan Evenson said she isn’t a fan of the later start for her family but the district needs to do everything it can to help the most students. She said pandemic recovery has been the primary focus this school year but attendance will be a higher priority next year.
“We want kids in seats,” she said.
Lake County, which was at 27% chronically absent in 2018-19, has taken several steps to improve this year’s rate by 6 percentage points, said Superintendent Michael Carter.
The district identified the worst attendance spots on its calendar and then closed school during Thanksgiving week, a popular hunting time, and the Lake County Round-up, a big community event.
Carter said they added dual-credit classes because students are more likely to attend if they can earn college credits. They added a Saturday makeup time for elementary students. It doesn’t count for attendance, but it reinforces the importance of school time, Carter said.
Redmond Superintendent Charan Cline said his district is looking at an estimated 40% chronically absent rate this year, higher than recent years. He said many students are missing school for jobs they started during distance learning. It’s hard to lure them back when even a bad job is paying $18 an hour, he said.
The district is sending messages to parents, talking with students and flooding local media on the importance of attendance but it hasn’t resorted to using truancy statutes yet, Cline said. COVID-19 has created a lot of mitigating circumstances, he said, but he expects the district to get “more pointed” next year if necessary.
Redmond School Board Chair Shawn Hartfield said raising attendance has not been a major policy goal this year. Instead, she said, the district is focusing more on engagement as well as bringing back students who have dropped out of the public system entirely. But if the rate remains that high, it will demand more attention, she said.
The Lincoln County School District’s chronically absent rate was 45% at the beginning of May, compared with 30% two years ago.
Kelly Beaudry, the special programs administrator, said the pandemic broke the good attendance habits of some students and intensified the bad habits of those who were already missing too much school.
The district is working to re-educate families about the importance of attendance, she said, but it’s a challenge because they are also telling families that children with illness symptoms need to stay home.
Beaudry said the current chronically absent rate doesn’t tell the whole story. Students missed school in the first part of the year for illnesses and quarantines, pushing the rate up, but many students’ attendance has been better since.
“We’ve hit bottom, and we’re coming back up,” Beaudry said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA