Salem schools tackle high student absenteeism

Emily Hicks, a communications coordinator for Salem-Keizer schools, hands a refrigerator magnet to track student attendance to an Auburn Elementary family at a school kick-off event Tuesday, Sept. 5 (Salem Reporter/Rachel Alexander).

As the school year kicks off, Salem-Keizer is sending a simple message to students and parents: show up.

Nearly one-third of local students were chronically absent last school year, meaning they missed two or more days of school every month. That’s more than 13,000 kids district-wide who regularly missed school.

Absentee rates are significantly higher among high schoolers, with half of seniors district-wide being chronically absent.

To reduce that number, the district Wednesday launched “Every Day 24J,” a campaign aiming to raise awareness of absenteeism and encourage citizens to do what they can to improve student attendance. (24J is the Salem-Keizer School District’s identification number.)

The attendance push kicked off Tuesday night at Auburn Elementary School, which is part of the high school territory with the worst attendance rates in the district. Twenty-nine percent of Auburn students were chronically absent during the 2016-17 school year, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education, and North Salem High School had an absentee rate of 51 percent: 806 students regularly absent from class.

Two days per month may not sound like much, but a student who’s absent that often will miss the equivalent of a full year of class time by the end of middle school, said Lillian Govus, the district’s communications director.

As parents and students crowded Auburn’s front steps to look at a list of class assignments, district staff handed out magnets for parents to track their students’ absences and explained the attendance campaign.

“A lot of them were really shocked at how quickly it adds up,” said Emily Hicks, a communications coordinator at the district.

Auburn Principal Katie Shumway said many families live within one mile of the school and don’t receive bus service. Student attendance tends to fall when it’s raining because parents don’t want to send their students out in poor weather. The school has partnered with local charity One Thousand Soles to buy rain boots to give out to families during the year.

“We find if we ask the question why kids are not attending, there’s usually a problem we can solve,” Shumway said.

Govus said students who regularly miss school tend to be come disengaged and are more likely to drop out.

“We see that translating into our graduation rates,” she said.

A 2007 study from Johns Hopkins University found students who attended less than 90 percent of school in sixth grade were far less likely to graduate. Only 13 percent of students who attended less than 80 percent of sixth grade graduated from high school on time.

The district’s four-year graduation rate for 2016-17 was 73 percent, according to state data. For North Salem High School, it was 68 percent. The state average is 77 percent.

Salem’s absenteeism rates are the highest among Oregon districts serving at least 10,000 students, state Education Department data shows. The district is significantly worse than Portland, Hillsboro, Beaverton and Bend, districts with absenteeism rates between 15 and 21 percent.

Superintendent Christy Perry said in part, that’s because Salem has more students from demographic groups that tend to miss more school, often because they’re struggling with issues like poverty or access to reliable transportation.

English language learners, students receiving free or reduced lunch and Latino students all have higher absenteeism rates than the district average.

There’s no set target for reducing absenteeism yet, Govus said. A new district committee began meeting this summer to set such goals.

The reasons students miss school vary, and part of the campaign will identify those reasons and see where the district or community members can step in to help families get their students to school.

Perry said those reasons include parents not wanting kids to walk to school in bad weather, older students skipping school because they aren’t engaged and parents dropping kids off late or signing them out early so they have time to get siblings at other schools.

“It usually, again, isn’t about desire. It’s about the challenges,” she said.

Public awareness is a large part of the effort. District staff have been busy churning out buttons and flyers in English and Spanish with the “Every Day 24J” slogan, handing them out to school board members, teachers and community leaders.

Staff are also evaluating the letters and calls they send to parents when students miss too much school.

“We have historically had a message of being punitive about attendance,” Perry said. That should change to let parents know the district wants to help them get their kids to school, she said.

Data collection also plays a role. Parents have been able to view their child’s attendance on the district’s online portal, ParentVUE, said Thomas Rommel, the district supervisor of data, research and assessment.

But principals now can use an electronic dashboard to see attendance for their entire school, updated daily. They can break that data into demographic groups like race or grade level, easily see days when absences spiked and look at individual students who might be falling behind.

Perry said she hopes to see citizens get involved, whether that’s offering to walk a neighbor’s kids to school or asking kids in after school programs whether they attended school that day“It’s every one of us thinking about our sphere of influence,” Perry said.