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Our view: Absenteeism saps chances for high achievement

Blowing off classes too often is like a chronic illness

Published on September 7, 2017 12:01AM


Woody Allen said “80 percent of success is showing up,” an observation that rings true. If you can’t meet basic scheduling obligations, what are the odds of somehow blundering into a good life in today’s increasingly complex world?

School absenteeism is a variation on this truism, except that frequently absent students test the limits of just how often they can not show up and get by anyway. If not showing up at all is the death of prospects for a rewarding and well-rounded life, blowing off classes too often is like a chronic illness, sapping chances for high achievement.

Our Tuesday story explored how educators are searching for ways to combat absenteeism — a nagging issue that hamstrings learning and consistently places Oregon near the bottom nationally. Meanwhile, the Seattle Times reported Sunday “that in 28 percent of Washington schools almost a third of all students are missing weeks of classwork, a rate that ranks as second-worst in the nation, after Alaska.”

Locally, an average of more than one-fifth of students in Clatsop County were chronically absent in the 2015-16 school year, missing at least 10 percent of the 180 school days, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Education.

Attendance trails off badly toward the end of high school, when students should instead be gathering momentum for careers by doing well in classes. More than 28 percent of juniors and seniors at Astoria High School, more than 30 percent at Warrenton High School and 40 percent at Seaside High School are chronically absent. Active intervention is needed well before the final years of K-12 schooling to make sure to minimize the underlying reasons for missing classes.

Absenteeism is bound up with family and individual dynamics that some school officials understandably despair at influencing. If parents don’t consider getting to school to be a high priority, odds aren’t ideal that external forces can replace that lack of motivation.

And yet there are case studies showing that communities can make a real difference in improving school-attendance rates, and thus the prospects for students’ success in life.

The just-published “Portraits of Chance” (tinyurl.com/yd4xycd4) provides road maps for lowering absenteeism.

“What works is taking a data-driven, comprehensive approach that begins with engaging students and families as well as preventing absences from adding up. The key is using data as a diagnostic tool to help identify and target where chronic absence is a problem,” the report states.

In a case study from elsewhere in Oregon, “the Tribal Attendance Pilot Project illustrates the power of using data to raise awareness of attendance challenges (in this case, Native American students) and the power of partnering, in this case among tribes, rural districts and families.”

The key point from the study is it isn’t necessary to become discouraged about absenteeism. A variety of effective strategies are available around the nation, models that can be adapted in local school districts around the mouth of the Columbia. These strategies tend not to be massively or instantly successful, but will make a difference in the lives of many young people if they are implemented and consistently applied.

A Tuesday report from the Brookings Institution (tinyurl.com/Brookings-Rural-Dreams) makes it clear just how critical education is to determining which of America’s rural counties languish as economic backwaters and which establish paths to upward mobility.

“Improving K-12 quality in distressed areas will improve young residents’ life prospects and preparedness for adulthood,” Brookings observed. “The broad lesson of our findings is that in counties where children are able to prepare well for adult life, they do well: even if, in many cases, this means moving elsewhere. Country boys and girls from modest backgrounds can go on to succeed every bit as much as their city cousins.”

We must make sure local schools meet students’ needs. And we must do a better job of making certain students consistently take advantage of the education they are offered.



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