Students get off the bus for the first day of school at Bush Elementary. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Hundreds more local students attended school regularly last year after a determined push by the Salem-Keizer School District to boost numbers.

That’s the brightest news for local schools in state “report cards” released Thursday. It’s also an area where Salem-Keizer did better than the state.

Despite a statewide emphasis on school attendance, Oregon’s overall rate didn’t budge last year. State education officials are counting that as a success, since the number of kids attending school regularly has fallen every year since Oregon began tracking the number.

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About four in five students statewide attend at least 90% of school days, a national benchmark for attendance.

Students who attend class regularly perform better on state tests and are more likely to graduate high school.

The report cards are designed to give parents and others a quick overview of how local schools are performing, summarizing state tests, attendance, demographics and teacher experience and turnover. Reports for every school and the district are available here and are also posted inside schools.

Test score data released in September showed students in nearly every large school district, including Salem-Keizer, performed worse than in 2018. The results disappointed school administrators and school board members, though some schools bucked the trend and improved significantly.

READ: Student test scores down across Salem-Keizer, but some schools saw big gains

What the state found for Salem-area schools:

Attendance up, but there’s still a long way to go

Salem-Keizer started last year with one of the worst attendance rates among large school district in Oregon, but a districtwide push to get more kids to school more often showed results. Two in three local schools improved their regular attendance rate, sometimes significantly.

READ: Salem schools tackle high student absenteeism

Highland Elementary School, with one of the highest poverty rates in Salem-Keizer, improved attendance by 11 percentage points, moving from 65% to 76% of students coming to most of class.

Nearly every group of students in the district posted gains, including students with disabilities, students from low-income families and every racial and ethnic group.

But large gaps remain in attendance. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students have by far the lowest regular attendance rate of any racial group in the district, with just 62% attending school regularly last year.

The district is hiring someone to work with Pacific Islander students and families in middle schools and discussing other ways to improve that number with new state money coming next year, according to district spokeswoman Lillian Govus.

Local students are multilingual

Though local classes are taught in English and Spanish, Salem-Keizer students spoke 90 native languages last year.

On paper, that’s an increase from 2018, where the state counted 74 languages. But that’s based on a one-day count of the student body – the number of languages fluctuates day to day as students leave and enter the district, Govus said.

Salem students speak fewer unique languages than those in Portland or Beaverton, but the district has more non-native English speaking students than any other district in Oregon.

South Salem High School had the most linguistically diverse student body, with 39 languages spoken among 1,800 students.

More Latino teachers are in local classrooms

Since arriving in 2014, Superintendent Christy Perry has said hiring teachers of color is a priority. Research shows students of color perform better in school if they have even one teacher of the same race.

Hiring native Spanish-speaking bilingual teachers has also been a focus.

The latest data shows progress.

READ: To improve teacher diversity, Salem-Keizer focusing on training its own students, classroom aides

In one year, the district added about 24 Latinos to the teaching workforce. Now, about 9% of teachers and four in ten students are Latino. The number of black teachers also increased slightly.

But district teachers remain overwhelmingly white relative to the student body: just under half of students are white, but 88% of teachers are.

Teacher turnover varies widely between schools

In an average year, 15% of teachers in a typical Salem-Keizer school will leave. That’s the same as Oregon’s average.

Turnover rates vary widely between schools, with the district’s highest poverty schools often seeing more teachers leave. High turnover can make it hard for schools to improve student performance or establish routines.

Aside from charter schools, Miller Elementary has the highest turnover rate, with about one in three teachers leaving annually.

Kalapuya and Candalaria elementary schools have the lowest rates, with 1% and 6% yearly turnover, respectively.

Local schools have fewer counselors than other large districts

Last spring, there were 104 counselors and 11 psychologists spread among 65 district schools. That means there’s about one counselor for every 390 Salem-Keizer students.

That ratio should be lower now –the district added a counselor to each high school this year – but it’s still worse than Oregon’s other two large school districts, Portland and Beaverton.

In Portland, there are about 330 students per counselor. In Beaverton, it’s 320. Both districts also have more psychologists on staff.

Still, that’s better than many Oregon districts. Seventy-six districts, most with fewer than 1,000 students, have no counselors on staff.

The American School Counselor Association recommends having no more than 250 students per counselor. Statewide, only five of Oregon’s 196 school districts hit that target.

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