One thing Michael Olsen has noticed since joining the Astoria School District is how much teachers care about their students.
But they are often powerless to influence a child’s life once he or she walks out of the classroom.
“That’s a horrible feeling for a lot of these really caring teachers,” he said.
As the district’s new family and school liaison, Olsen reaches out to see what’s going on with students who don’t show up to school.
“Just knowing what the conditions are at home helps inform how the teacher can approach the student in the school,” he said.
A marriage and family therapist, Olsen came to Astoria a few years ago from Grants Pass, eventually setting up his own private practice. He recently heard about the new liaison position at the school district, funded by Measure 98. The state Legislature provided $170 million over two years to enhance college and career-technical offerings, while cutting down on the state’s dismal attendance and dropout rates.
Olsen operates out of an office at Astoria Middle School. He receives referrals from school counselors to contact families whose children aren’t showing up for school or having other issues.
“A lot of times it’s supporting parents,” he said. “Parents are overwhelmed. I’m thinking of one family I’m working with, a single mom, a number of kids. She works long hours. It’s just a struggle to have the basic structure you need for your family when you work 12 hours a day and don’t see your kids from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed.
“So I just try to support families like that, relieve a little tension, a little anxiety, a little stress, maybe give them a few skills they might not otherwise have.”
The school district began the Strive for Five campaign this year with a goal of students not missing more than five days as a way to encourage higher attendance. Curriculum Director Melissa Linder reported at a recent school board meeting that the district started the school year strong on attendance, albeit with absenteeism increasing within a month, likely because of fall hunting trips and other early vacations.
Astoria Superintendent Craig Hoppes has said that if kids get to school, the district has the support structure to make sure they graduate.
Olsen sees attendance as one of the main measuring sticks of his success, and the primary reason behind referrals from teachers.
“I can’t tell you how many times the referral process looks something like this,” Olsen said. “‘We love the student. They’re bright. They’re amazing. They’re engaged. They’re not showing up, and we can’t figure out why. We can’t crack whatever the problem is for them not showing up.’”