More than 700 students K-12 in Clatsop County were reported as chronically absent last year in a recent report from the Oregon Department of Education, out of more than 94,000 chronically absent students statewide.
The department of education defines chronic absenteeism as missing at least 10 percent of scheduled days between the start of the school year and May 1. This is the first year the state has released detailed attendance data on its own, after the “Empty Desks” series by the Oregonian last year revealed Oregon, with 17.7 percent of its students chronically absent, had one of the biggest attendance problems in the country in the 2012-13 school year. The situation hasn’t notably improved this year, with 17.4 percent statewide considered chronically absent this year, while the county’s rate has increased from 13 to 15 percent over two years.
Absenteeism starts high in kindergarten, dips as students advance through grades and perks back up among upperclassmen in high school. In Astoria and Seaside, nearly a quarter of kindergartners were chronically absent last year, part of a similar historic trend. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of seniors in Seaside were chronically absent last year at Seaside High School, along with a third of juniors and seniors at Astoria High School.
“I think sometimes people with kindergartners think it doesn’t matter,” said Kate Gohr, principal at John Jacob Astor Elementary School.
Gohr said parents often say “‘Oh, they’re sick,’” about their kids. “But they’re just sick all too often. That’s a lot of sickness.”
Improving attendance has been a continuing goal for Gohr, who started last year as principal and said she and staff continue to make phone calls on absent children and send letters home.
“It’s hard to teach them if they’re not here,” she said, citing a study by national policy group Attendance Works showing 17 percent of students who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were able to read proficiently by third grade, compared to 64 percent of students who had good attendance. Reading proficiently by third grade, when kids are supposed to stop learning to read and start reading to learn, is a key indicator of how successful they will be educationally.
At 9 percent, Warrenton-Hammond School District had the second-lowest rate of chronic absenteeism last year of any Oregon district with more than 500 students. Only 7.8 percent of Warrenton’s kindergartners last year were chronically absent, a third of the rate of absenteeism in Astoria and Seaside.
Robbie Porter, vice principal of Warrenton Grade School, credits the district’s focus on reaching out early to parents of preschoolers. For three years, Warrenton has offered its own preschool inside the elementary school, while also offering full-day kindergarten over the past few years, before it became a state mandate this year.
“Opening the building early to young children and their families makes it easier for them when they start,” Porter said.
She said state law mandating regular attendance for anyone over the age of 5 and enrolled in school has also helped her efforts to ensure parents get their kids to school on time, which can sometimes lead to a truancy officer visiting homes and imposing fines.
Knappa’s Hilda Lahti Elementary School experienced a 10 percent drop in its chronic absenteeism rate among kindergartners from two years ago, from 24 to 14 percent.
“Our feeling is that we made a pretty concerted effort to make connections with families,” Hilda Lahti Principal Leila Collier said, adding the effort involved a proactive approach of reaching out to parents and offering assistance.
A lesser breakout of sickness, she said, has also led to fewer absences.
“The hunting is the same,” Collier said about families’ willingness to take their children out for mid-year vacations and hunting trips. “It’s the same families. I think that’s a county thing.”
High school principals Sheila Roley from Seaside and Lynn Jackson of Astoria said their students face a difficult work-home-life balance.
Nearly half of students at both schools were considered economically disadvantaged last year. Nearly a fifth were considered mobile, enrolling in more than one Oregon school district, enrolling in the state for the first time or missing more than two weeks at a time.
Jackson said he was just talking to one student who works from 4 to 10 p.m. “And that’s after being at school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.”
Roley said some families moving in between districts don’t tell their previous school, leaving staff to count their students as chronically absent and dropouts.
“I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to tell us,” Roley said. “They just have different priorities.”