Sara LeRoy, North Salem High School principal, is focused on driving down student absenteeism. (Special to Salem Reporter/Moriah Ratner)

When Sara LeRoy became principal at North Salem High School, she knew she was in for a lot of work.

The school has the highest percentage of chronically absent students of any high school in the district, according to state data. Half of the school’s nearly 1,600 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year.

Among students with disabilities, it’s 57 percent, and for students learning English, 63 percent.

“Education is the great equalizer, and we can do a lot better for our kids,” LeRoy said.

Superintendent Christy Perry and Communications Director Lillian Govus kicked off a district-wide campaign last week to improve student attendance.

Nearly one-third of Salem-Keizer students were chronically absent from school last year, according to district figures, and Govus said the numbers have been getting worse over the past few years. Statewide, 20 percent of students were absent during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent year for which state data is available.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

LeRoy said many kids come to her with attendance habits set in elementary and middle school.

North carries a federal designation meaning a high percentage of its students live in poverty. McKay, where LeRoy was principal before moving to North last year, is the only other traditional high school in the district with that designation.

The reasons students miss class are often beyond her control.

Students have jobs to support their families, so they sleep in after late shifts or skip class to pick up extra hours. Teenagers need to get braces adjusted and can’t get an appointment at the orthodontist after school hours.

“Our kids have a million reasons to get pulled out,” she said.

Why tackle absenteeism now?

At both the local and state level, the data showing the magnitude of the problem is relatively new.

Chronic absenteeism wasn’t tracked at a national or state level until recently, said Terra Hernandez, who’s leading the Oregon Department of Education’s campaign to address the problem.

"Previously, discussion of absences tended to focus on truancy: kids skipping school without parent permission.

“Some people think that absences are only a problem if they’re unexcused,” Hernandez said.

But growing research shows being regularly gone from school, whether excused or not, correlates with below-grade level literacy, lower graduation rates and a host of other problems.

That’s driven districts looking to improve graduation rates to focus on the factors that lead students to not finish high school. Absenteeism is high on the list.

And it doesn’t take many absences for students to start slipping.

Missing 10 percent of school, the point where educators start to worry, is just two days per month, a number that sounds small to many families.

A student who’s out of class that often will miss a full year of instruction between kindergarten and middle school.

LeRoy said she saw that firsthand during her seven years teaching English at North.

A student who misses a day has class work to make up and won’t get the instruction their classmates did. When they return to school, circumstances make it easier for them to fall further behind.

“They come back and they feel like they’ve missed something. It affects their confidence,” she said.

Kudzai Kapurura, a senior at South Salem High School who sits on the district’s student equity committee, said isolation is a reason many of her peers skip school.

“Some students don’t want to go because they don’t feel included in the community at their school,” she said. That often becomes a reinforcing cycle: students miss class, see their grades drop, feel more isolated and continue staying away, she said.

The effort to improve attendance has attracted some unlikely partners. Kaiser Permanente gave $150,000 each to seven Oregon organizations working to address chronic absenteeism earlier this year.

That’s because Kaiser sees attendance as a health issue, said Elizabeth Engberg, who manages Kaiser’s health and education initiatives.

“There’s this very strong link between what happens in schools, how long somebody stays in schools and the kind of health they enjoy for their life,” she said.

People who complete high school are less likely to develop chronic diseases, for instance.

In Salem, Kaiser gave money to the Salem/Keizer Coalition for Equality, a nonprofit run by Latino parents, to reach families with children in the elementary schools feeding into North.

“Without parents, we can’t do anything because the parent is the first teacher in the house,” said Yadira Juarez, the coalition’s early learning program director.

Juarez said parents often don’t understand how to get involved in their child’s school or don’t realize the importance of attendance.

And school policies, especially when not explained, can further isolate them. For instance, the district requires background checks for volunteers, and the forms for those checks ask for a Social Security number, Juarez said. Many Latino parents don’t understand who gets that information or are concerned about immigration officials.

“Parents won’t give that information out of fear,” she said.

Kids may also miss school because they’re being bullied for their race or national origin, she said.

Students head to class at Highland Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 7. The school is one of the feeders to North Salem High School. (Special to Salem Reporter/Moriah Ratner)

At the high school level, LeRoy has started making changes to get kids to school and keep them there.

This year, North adjusted its schedule to allow for two half-hour sessions each week for an advising, where students work with a teacher to set goals, plan careers and talk about why school is important to them and what’s keeping them there.

She hopes those periods will keep students engaged and allow staff to see earlier when students are struggling.

“They just need more guidance from us,” she said.

Students who are tardy to class now have to fill out a short slip explaining why before they’re allowed to go back to class. That system, which she started last year, cut down on tardiness significantly.

While she was principal at McKay, the school adopted a later start time, 8:20 a.m., rather than the 7:30 a.m. start for every other school in the district. Student attendance improved, LeRoy said.

North’s start time isn’t her decision, but she said student absences are highest in the morning.

Govus, the district spokeswoman, said planning for the absenteeism campaign started over the summer, when schedules were already set for the year. Changing school start times is difficult, but she said it may be discussed when district officials start planning for next year.

LeRoy is working with administrators at North to hold community meetings in both English and Spanish to get parents more involved and give them ideas for how to talk to their kids about coming to school regularly.

 “We love our kids and we love teaching them,” LeRoy said. “It’s hard to teach when they’re not in school.”

Have a story tip? Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: Rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.