Salem schools improve graduation readiness, but struggle with attendance

Just half of Salem students attended school regularly last year, new state data shows, and district leaders said boosting that number is key to improving student reading and academic performance.

But state data released last week also shows a bright spot: the share of students who started high school last year and is now on track to graduate sits at 82% across the Salem-Keizer School District.

That’s approaching the pre-pandemic, 2019 measure, when 85% of high school freshmen finished the year with six credits — one quarter of the total required to graduate.

“The data still paints a picture that we need to do better in the district,” said Iton Udosenata, assistant superintendent for secondary schools. ”That’s something that we’re owning and that we’re going to take on.”

Salem schools already struggled with regular attendance before the pandemic. A 2018 district campaign to boost the number of kids in class regularly — at least 90% of the time — yielded results, and by 2019, three in four Salem-Keizer students were attending regularly.

School closures during the pandemic meant students reversed course. Many disengaged from online lessons and got out of the habit of attending regularly, and waves of Covid in early 2022 also kept many students and educators home.

Last year, 48% of Salem-Keizer students were chronically absent from school — far higher than the statewide rate of 38%.

Oregon’s attendance drops were among the steepest in the nation during the pandemic and early research is showing states that kept schools closed longer had larger drops, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported

“Along with the districts around the nation, we need to reset the expectation of school attendance,” said school board Director Osvaldo Avila, speaking at a community forum Oct. 24 about the school district’s priorities for the year. “We have incredible schools and incredible staff. But if our students are not able to be there, present every day, all day, then they cannot learn the value that the teachers are teaching.”

To improve attendance, schools are focusing on individually reaching out to students who are routinely absent, even having principals sit down and make “attendance plans” with kids and their families, said Olga Cobb, deputy superintendent for elementary schools.

She said they’re also communicating more with families about the importance of attendance, especially in early elementary school, which sets the tone for much of a student’s academic life.

“Creating these habits of being in school and understanding the value of engaging in teaching and learning in the younger years is so important,” Cobb said.

Individual schools are holding celebrations when students hit attendance goals. Cobb said the presence of volunteers back in schools this year is also boosting student morale and engagement.

In high schools, where attendance rates begin to drop, Udosenata said individual connections with students who aren’t making it to class are a key strategy. School workers conduct home visits if students are chronically absent and try to communicate with families.

He said schools are particularly focused on current freshmen and sophomores — students who spent much of middle school online during the pandemic “and maybe have gaps in learning.”

State data shows improvements in graduation readiness across nearly every high school and demographic group in the district, an encouraging sign after steep declines three years ago.

Udosenata said schools are focusing on Algebra I, a math course that often challenges new high school students, and continuing to use state money for Saturday school and individual tutoring so students falling behind have help to get back on track.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.