Time lost counts: Schools get help tackling student chronic absenteeism

September 2019 Posted in Community, School

Educators from 29 regional schools participated in a two-day training program. Courtesy Sean Aker

By Steve Ritchie

Former JFK principal Sean Aker has a simple message to convey in his new job:  Every Day Matters.

It sounds like it could be a catchy slogan to sell Gatorade or Nike workout gear, but it’s a far more important message directed to students from kindergarten through high school and their parents.

Aker now works at the Willamette Educational Service District as a Regional Coordinator for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism in area schools. His mission, which he pursues with an evangelical fervor, is to increase awareness of the importance of regular, consistent school attendance and help schools build capacity and develop effective strategies to combat chronic absenteeism.

Chronic absenteeism is defined by the State of Oregon as missing 10 percent or more of school days. That amounts to approximately 18 days absent during the school year, or two days a month. That may not sound like a lot, but Aker noted that a student consistently missing 10 percent of school days from kindergarten through eighth grade will have missed the equivalent of a full year of school time before entering high school.

“If the student misses time in the classroom that’s a day they can never get back,” Aker said. “(Studies show) that if you are missing two days or more in the first month of the school year, that is probably going to be the pattern for the year. And if you have chronic absenteeism in elementary school, that is likely going to be the pattern throughout your
school years.”

The problem of chronic absenteeism has been recognized by state legislators and policy makers. In 2016 House Bill 4022 became law in an effort to address the problem statewide.

“It requires the state to put some funding toward reducing chronic absenteeism,” Aker said.

Initially, about $6.7 million was allocated by the state for the 2017-2019 budget cycle. A slice of those funds went to the 30 schools with the highest rate of absenteeism. Another slice of the funding pie went to assist the next 60 schools through support services through the regional Economic Service Districts, and that is where Aker and other regional coordinators come in.

According to Department of Education statistics, chronic absenteeism is higher in kindergarten and first grade, but drops in grades two to six. However, it starts to rise again in middle school and continues at problematic levels in high school. The average student missed 12.5 days in the last school year, but those who are chronically absent often miss far more.

Aker is just entering his second year in the job, but is excited about some of the early success several schools have had. While each school can chart its own path in determining how to improve attendance, the overall approach utilizes the same framework.

Building awareness of the impact of being absent is the first step. Studies show that it takes three days for students to “catch up” on work from one day of being absent. Parents and students often don’t realize how quickly they can fall behind academically from even a short illness, a week-long family vacation, or a series of appointments during school time. Not to mention missed class time for sports or other extracurricular activities.

Aker says even if students work hard to make up homework assignments they missed, they are still missing something.

“When you engage with other people who are learning the same thing,” he said, “your learning is enhanced by the group interactions. So when you are not in class for that discussion with your peers, you lose that opportunity and you’ll never get it back… I just think that people don’t look at it like that. It’s not the same to simply do the reading or the worksheets if you miss out on that ‘deep dive.’ You can’t replicate that.”

Schools are encouraged to develop a communication plan to increase understanding of how attendance affects school and future life. This often includes a “nudge letter,” sent to parents to alert them to their son or daughter’s attendance issues. Aker also encourages direct contact with parents to build stronger relationships between school
and home.

“It is important not to point fingers or issue blame,” Aker said. “What we need to do is open communication and build relationships. Chronic absenteeism can be a symptom of other problems. We need to get to know people and figure out
how to help.”

A second component is building capacity in the school to address attendance issues, whether that is dealing with a group of students who need assistance, eliminating bullying or simply creating a more welcoming school environment. Aker works with school “teams” of designated staff members to collect and review attendance data, and devise strategies to improve it, especially for those who are missing school regularly.

The third key component is intervention, which can take a variety of approaches. One successful pilot program was in the North Santiam School District. The “Pledge to Attend” program focused on securing commitments from students whose attendance was less than stellar. Aker said the approach was very basic, but had some surprising results.

“Show up for school for 20 (straight) days and win great prizes and enjoy a pizza party was our pitch,” Aker said. Sixty-seven students participated in the Pledge program over three phases of 20 days each. Parents were informed, and students got rewards and [prize drawing] tickets throughout. By the end of the year, two-thirds of the high absence group had become regular attendees.

North Santiam School District Superintendent Andy Gardner praised the Pledge to Attend initiative and believes the effort to improve attendance is money well spent.

“Sean obviously brought a lot of personal enthusiasm and worked really hard in the district,” Gardner said. “We always work on our attendance data and our rate (of attendance) is always in the 90 percentile so there’s a lot of comfort there, but when we began to look at the number of kids who missed two days or more a month it really allowed us to focus on individual students.

“We saw some really cool results. The Pledge to Attend program paid great dividends. For those kids to know that people are rooting for them to just be there (in school) is very powerful. Those kids were able to improve their rate of attendance and it gave them a feeling of accomplishment… The challenge now is to take Sean’s methods into our everyday working culture so it just becomes what we do moving forward.”

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