Absenteeism still testing Malheur school districts

By John L. Braese

The Enterprise

ONTARIO – Much like the students they teach, Malheur County school districts receive reports cards from the state. And, like the students, absenteeism is part of the grade. State officials recently released the latest report covering attendance and absenteeism in every school in Oregon.

“County wide, we are about the same as last year in the districts,” said Mark Redmond, Malheur Education Service District superintendent.

Redmond looked at the data for school districts across the county and sees schools holding steady on a challenging issue.

“The state is pushing absenteeism to the forefront and pushing districts to take steps to confront the problem,” he said.

Across the county, high schools face the most severe challenge in keeping students in their seats.

The Oregon Department of Education report showed that 80 percent of the state’s students regularly attended school.

By comparison, Jordan Valley High School shows students showing up to class over 95 percent of the time and Adrian High School came in at over 87 percent.

Vale High School and Ontario High School finish in the middle with Vale showing a 77 percent attendance and Ontario High School finishing at just over 75 percent attendance.

Less than 65 percent of Harper High School’s students are in their seats each day. Nyssa High School is somewhat better with students in class just under 70 percent of the time.

Ontario is actively confronting the problem.

“We can’t teach if they are not in school,” said Nicole Albisu, Ontario superintendent.

The district has turned to a computer program called Attention2Attendance, spotted at a school conference by Nathan Sandberg, Ontario High School associate principal.

“Eagle Point was using the program and was at the conference,” Sandberg said. “Their administrators were showing test scores were up and kids were at school.”

Sandberg took what he had seen back to Ontario.

Currently, tracking students at all the district schools is a tedious, manual process.

“Secretaries at the schools pour over attendance,” said Sandberg.

The district opted to buy the $20,000 program because it considers attendance so crucial to student success.

“Instead of secretaries pouring over the daily records, the program compiles the information every night and automatically generates letters” to parents of studenets missing from school, said Sandberg.

The district sets the perimeters and can make exceptions for special cases.

“If we have a student who is receiving cancer treatment, the last thing we want to do is bother the parents with a letter about being absent,” Sandberg said. “The program allows us to suppress letters. They have enough to worry about.”

Sandberg said the district understands some students need to stay home.

“In this community, it happens,” he said. “What this program will assist with is contacting those parents and letting them know of community resources available that may assist in letting the student be able to attend school. We are here to work with the parent to support the child.”

Ontario is rolling out the program this month with plenty of advance notice to parents and students, according to Sandberg.

“We will be sending information home with students and posting information about the program on the web,” he said. “This is all about communication between the district and parents.”

Ontario will test the program for the next two years and will be only the fourth district in the state and the first in eastern Oregon to use it.

“Nyssa has contacted us asking for more information,” Sandberg said.

Across Oregon in the 2015-16 school year, nearly 102,000 students in Oregon or about one in six children were chronically absent from school.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days in an academic year for any reason including excused, unexcused and disciplinary expulsion.

For all students, Oregon reported 20 percent of students were chronically absent from school in the 2016-2017 school year.

Some grade levels in Malheur County suffer significant chronic absenteeism. In Nyssa, 40 percent of high school seniors were chronically absent. In Ontario, the figure was 39 percent and in Vale, 33 percent.

The 2015 Oregon Legislature directed the Education Department to address the problem. About a year ago, the agency reported findings of its research, including:

  • Students from lower-income families have higher rates of chronic absenteeism. One study found 40 percent of students with economic disadvantages were chronically absent.
  • The gaps by economic status across racial and ethnic groups are large, averaging about 10 percentage points.
  • Male students have lower rates of chronic absenteeism than female students.
  • Students with higher attendance rates are more likely to meet academic standards and graduate on time.

The study also found students who don’t regularly attend school have lower reading and math scores and are more likely to be held back a grade.

Students in high school recorded the highest chronic absenteeism followed by kindergarten students. A 2016 study found that more than one in five students in rural areas are chronically absent.

Some schools in Oregon are trying to combat the problem.

Some have set up an attendance club for those students struggling with attendance. Others have included multiple clubs in the school to ensure as many students as possible can participate in an activity. One school has a teacher and administrator visit the home of each new student to detect problems early. The Hillsboro School District has partnered with local dentists and doctors to urge parents not to schedule appointments during the school day. At Echo Shaw, a staff member has started calling identified students each morning asking if the student is awake and getting ready for school.

Have a news tip? Contact reporter John L. Braese at [email protected] or call 541-473-3377.