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Oregon Education Officials Launch Campaign To Address Chronic Absenteeism

<p>An empty hallway at Auburn Elementary School in Salem before school starts. Auburn was originally expected to be rebuilt under the proposed bond measure for the May 2018 ballot.</p>

Molly J. Smith

An empty hallway at Auburn Elementary School in Salem before school starts. Auburn was originally expected to be rebuilt under the proposed bond measure for the May 2018 ballot.

About one in six Oregon school children is considered “chronically absent,” meaning they miss at least 10 percent of the school year. School officials say that's a significant cause of Oregon's low graduation rate and lagging student achievement, as measured on standardized tests.

The  campaign is aimed at helping individual schools work with families to address the many barriers that can keep students from class. Carla Wade at the state’s education department says the list of causes is long.

“Economic barriers, health including mental health or disability issues — transportation problems — streets that don’t have proper crosswalks or sidewalks, or infrequent bus service," Wade said.

The list goes on.

"Cultural differences — the school schedule might not correspond with the holidays or important community ceremonies or events ... and bullying,” she said.

Several of those issues, like family health challenges or lack of sidewalks, are not within a school district's purview. Wade said that's why schools have to work with other government agencies and directly with families to address them.

The Oregon Department of Education is funding coaches and other supports for close to half the state’s school districts with the biggest absenteeism problems. Twenty-seven school districts identified with the deepest needs are getting help from coaches and education specialists, to do "deep diagnostic" work, according to Wade. Another 60 districts have gotten chronic absenteeism support, such as professional development for teachers and regional strategizing, from their local ESD.

The state’s online toolkits offer advice to teachers, and parents — like how to judge when your kid is too sick for school and when they should go in. 

Wade said there are examples of school districts that have made strides in recent years, such as Myrtle Point, where she said teaching staff and other school employees have worked together to build a more welcoming culture. She said Oakridge schools have also seen success in offering students incentives — like attendance certificates — for showing up to school more often.

Oregon has already invested in some strategies specific to student groups who have exceptionally high rates of chronic absenteeism. A pilot program pairing school districts with local Native American tribes already appears to be helping improve attendance, and to some degree, student achievement at participating schools.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning is a news editor at Oregon Public Broadcasting, with oversight of reporters covering education, healthcare and business. Rob became an editor in 2019, following about 15 years covering schools and universities in Oregon and southwest Washington as OPB’s education reporter.