Report: Missing school for a reason

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4:09 p.m. PDT June 5, 2016

Oregon’s Chief Education Office released a report on chronic absenteeism last week examining barriers to regular school attendance, for the first time, from the perspective of students and families.

Based on the responses they collected from strategic focus groups, the report gave six suggestions to address absenteeism in the state:

  • Increasing educator professional development and support with respect to building culturally responsive practices and school communities;
  • Increasing the number of meaningful partnerships between schools/district and community based organizations, especially culturally specific organizations;
  • Increasing diversity in the educator workforce;
  • Conducting deeper studies of attendance initiatives;
  • Offering more engaging content and course offerings;
  • Revising policies and procedures to eliminate discipline disparities.

The report gathered data from 44 focus groups in seven communities across Oregon — intentionally oversampling populations who are most likely to be disengaged from school including tribal students, students with disabilities, communities of color, and students who speak English as a second language. The report concluded some students and families may be making an “informed choice to miss some school based on previous negative/traumatic experiences,” such as racism.

Although the specific percentage of absences that qualifies as “chronic” varies from state to state, 10 percent of school days missed annually was the definition of “chronically absent” used for the study.

Oregon has one of the highest levels of chronic absenteeism in the country.

“Oregon’s rate of chronic absenteeism is … the highest among the states where data is available,” according to the report. “Nationally, one in 10 kindergartners are chronically absent. Notably … nearly a third of the chronically absent students in the primary grades were accounted for in only 20 percent of Oregon elementary schools.

“For eighth graders, Oregon is among one of the six states with 25 percent or more of students reporting missing three or more days of school.”

The Salem-Keizer School District has an absenteeism rate of about 7 percent, according to the district’s report card and the district’s average attendance rates.

The qualitative study released last week identified two overarching themes — a need for “culturally responsive practices,” including those connected to relationships and school/classroom opportunities, and the “importance of addressing systemic barriers” defined as a set of circumstances that affect school and families.

The study found there are many systemic barriers, including lack of transportation, unaffordable childcare, and large class sizes that contribute to absenteeism, particularly for these groups.

One point the report focused on was diversity, saying one barrier that contributes to absenteeism for students of color is a lack of staff members who look like them.

In Salem-Keizer, about 40 percent of students are classified as Hispanic/Latino, but only 5-8 percent of staff are. And while almost 50 percent of Salem-Keizer students are white, about 90 percent of staff are.

“We heard from students that their feeling of connection to school was most impacted through strong relationships with their teachers and other school staff,” said Chief Education Officer Lindsey Capps. “Students and their families expressed the positive impact all educators have in being responsive to both a student’s lived experience and culture.”

Chronic absenteeism is linked to critical markers of success in school, according to the report.

Absenteeism as early as sixth grade decreases the likelihood of high school graduation, and generally chronic absenteeism also makes it less likely those students will attend college and more likely they will commit crimes.

“This study offers a powerful snapshot of the experiences of students and families in our schools that have contributed to high absenteeism rates,” Capps said. “The voices in this report … call us to come together to develop cross-sector solutions to engage students in school, and holistically support families.”

Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal. Contact Natalie at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate, on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist or on the Web at nataliepate.com

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