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Douglas County schools struggle with absenteeism and work to address it

Teachers at Yoncalla Elementary take daily attendance by greeting students at the door of their classroom. Some students like to give their teacher a high five, others like a fist bump.

Students then gather on the carpet. Each student has a magnet labeled with their name on a tin board with a heart drawn in the center. The teacher moves absent students’ magnets into the heart on the board and their classmates wish them well.

This morning routine is part of an effort to increase attendance rates by making students feel valued at school, and missed when they’re absent. Research shows that if students feel connected to their class, they’re more likely to show up.

For years, schools in Douglas County and across the state have been struggling with chronic absenteeism — students missing more than 10 percent of the school year. Principals have made addressing the issue a priority. They’ve implemented attendance awareness programs, hired attendance councilors and started recording more attendance data. But the factors leading to chronic absenteeism are complex, and the results of such initiatives in Douglas County have been mixed.

Attendance is a strong predictor of graduation. Last year, 77 percent of high schoolers in Oregon graduated on time — the third worst graduation rate in the county. In Douglas County, 67 percent of high schoolers graduated on time.

Over a fifth of students in Oregon were chronically absent last year. In Douglas County, the number of chronically absent students was slightly higher, at 22.8 percent. Douglas has the 10th highest chronic absentee rate out of 36 counties in the state.

The state has recently taken steps to address the problem.

In 2015, Oregon passed HB 4002, which directed the Oregon Department of Education and the Chief Education Office to develop a plan to address absenteeism with the hope of boosting graduation rates. As part of the plan, ODE launched the “Every Day Matters” campaign last week. The campaign’s website provides educators with toolkits they can use to better track attendance, incentivize students to come to school and learn how to talk to parents about the importance of attendance.

The state will also begin providing districts with education specialists to help diagnose the district’s specific attendance problems. Carla Wade, of the ODE department of teaching, learning and assessment, didn’t respond to the News-Review’s inquiry about whether districts in Douglas County would be provided with specialists.

Attendance Works is a San Francisco-based not-for-profit organization that partners with schools and districts across the country to help address chronic absenteeism. An Attendance Works link is featured on the state Every Day Matters website.

“The research pretty clearly says that as you start missing 10 percent of the school year, or approach that and go past that, that’s the threshold where we see the results we don’t want,” said Cecelia Leong, Attendance Works’ online and in-person resource developer. “We see kids not reading at grade level in third grade, we see them not passing their courses in middle school and, in Oregon, we see them not graduating on time.”

Students miss class for many different reasons, Leong said. Students may have health problems, such as diabetes or mental illness, that frequently hold them back from school. Sometimes parents take their kid out of school for a week to go on a trip. She said food insecurity or a lack of access to clean clothes also prevent regular attendance. Many older students have to miss school because they need to take care of a younger sibling while their parents work. In Oregon, transportation issues in rural areas and homelessness are a substantial contributors to chronic absenteeism, according to Leong.

“If you miss that one bus, or if the road is slopped because of bad weather, you’re going to have a hard time getting to school,” she said. That’s because oftentimes both parents work and cannot drive their kid to school if they miss the bus.

She added that in places where there’s a high poverty rate, students can be two to three times as likely to be chronically absent. Over 60 percent of students at schools in Douglas County qualify for free or reduced price lunch, according to ODE data. Students from communities of color and those with disabilities are also disproportionately affected, Leong said.

The causes of chronic absenteeism are different in every district and every student is different, according to Leong. She emphasized that it’s important for each district to identify for themselves what is preventing students from coming to school.

In all cases, the first step toward improving attendance is making sure families and students are aware of the impact attendance has on performance, Leong said.

“There’s a huge difference between younger children and older ones,” Leong said. “In the early elementary years, you’re really trying to affect what families are thinking. What motivates a younger person may be different than what motivates a teen. For the very young ones, they really want to feel secure and loved, as do teens, but teens are more likely to respond to incentives and messages that connect to their larger goals for themselves.”

If high school students understand that missing two days of school a month can dramatically reduce their likelihood of graduating, going to college and beginning their career of choice, then they’re more likely to go to class, Leong said.

It’s crucially important for districts to intervene early on if students have attendance issues. The early years are the most important because the negative consequences of chronic absenteeism compound as students get older, according to Leong.

Kelly Campbell said that when she became principal of Yoncalla Elementary at the beginning of last year, her administration made attendance a top priority. She taught every elementary school grade except kindergarten during the 18 years prior.

“Districtwide we took a big look at attendance,” Campbell said.

Last year, the district implemented Conscious Discipline, which is a model that encourages educators to shift away from punitive discipline and treat behavior issues as an opportunity to learn. Students are given an opportunity to reflect on their actions instead of being punished for them.

The model also places a high level of importance on students building relationships with teachers and feeling valued in the classroom, Campbell said. She said the morning routine, when everyone acknowledges absent students, is crucial to making students feel connected to their class and want to come to school.

The changes have yielded substantial results for Yoncalla Elementary’s attendance rates.

For years, the school’s chronic absentee rate was close to the state average of about 20 percent. But after the school implemented the attendance-centric changes under the Conscious Discipline model, Campbell saw a dramatic rise in attendance. The school’s regular attendance rate — the percentage of students coming to school 90 percent of the year or more — grew to 95 percent last year. That’s a 12 percent increase in one year.

“That change is not due to random chance,” Leong said. “They’re doing something that’s working.”

The district also implemented an electronic system that automatically calls home when students miss school. Yoncalla Elementary started acknowledging students with good attendance by giving them certificates at assemblies, and gave bicycles to two students who didn’t miss one day of school last year. Rewarding good attendance is often an effective strategy, according to Leong.

“If we see a student who is really struggling, we’ll call and just say, ‘Hey, you know we really missed so-and-so today. Is there anything we can do?’” Campbell said.

Campbell said last year one chronically absent student was missing school because the family couldn’t easily access a washer and drier, and the student’s parents didn’t want to send the student to school wearing dirty clothes. The district has a washer and drier and offered it to the family, who gladly accepted. The district has also set up a donation fund to help families that cannot afford new clothes.

“We try to make people feel like we’ve been there done that,” Campbell said. “We say, ‘We know this is real. How can we help you?”

Although creating a welcoming environment for students and addressing their issues directly appears to have worked for Yoncalla Elementary, other schools in Douglas County have implemented similar changes without the same results. Campbell said the size of their school probably played a role in the success of the initiatives — last year there were 136 students enrolled at Yoncalla Elementary.

Roseburg High School Principal Jill Weber said her school has employed several programs to try to boost attendance rates over the years.

The school’s average regular attendance rate for the last five years is 77 percent. Last year, the regular attendance rate was 74 percent. That’s the lowest attendance rate in the district, not including Phoenix Charter School and the new Rose School.

Roseburg High School has implemented the “Strive for less than five” awareness program which encourages students and parents to set a goal of missing no more than four days of school each semester. Good attendance is recognized with certificates, like at Yoncalla Elementary. The school also has an attendance monitor who records detailed attendance data and makes calls home for students struggling with attendance the most. Administrators look at the middle school attendance records of incoming freshman to try and identify who is at risk of being chronically absent and tailor counseling for them.

Weber said teachers at her school are also dedicated to learning how to build relationships with students that will encourage good attendance. Two years ago, teachers started a book club to collectively read books that would make them better educators and communicators. This year, teachers are reading the book “Fostering Resilient Learners,” which is about how to teach students who have experienced trauma.

But the school hasn’t seen the results it was hoping for.

“It doesn’t just start at the high school and it’s not something that starts at the middle school,” Weber said. “It’s something that we have to continue to work on K-12. We have to, as a community, wrap around this and get our kids here.”

Last year, Roseburg HS hired graduation coach Robert Coulson. He said that even though the school’s regular attender rate may not be showing substantial change, his efforts are making a difference for the students who need the most help with attendance. He pointed to the school’s five percent increase in students on-track to graduate. Last year, 85 percent of freshman received six course credits.

He added that he works one-on-one with students who make a 10 percent or more increase in their number days at school from one year to the next. But oftentimes those students are still not attending 90 percent of school days, and therefore they’re not considered a regular attender.

“In reality, that increase is the sometimes the entire ballgame,” Coulson said.

MSullivan / MICHAEL SULLIVAN/The News-Review  

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Camas Valley High School’s Jared Hunt runs through the Elkton defense during first half play in Camas Valley on Saturday. The Hornets won the game, 40-12.

Artists help Boys & Girls Club kids paint mural

Students from the Boys & Girls Club of the Umpqua Valley have been getting artistic lately thanks to help from some local artists.

Club members have been working on a mural on the concrete block wall on the south side of the club along Northeast Chestnut Avenue and three artists have helped the kids from the club to paint a colorful flower design on the wall.

The club applied for a grant with the Douglas County Cultural Coalition, which funded the project. Club officials looked for an artist to come up with a design and help put it together. After some delays because of weather, smoke and scheduling problems, they finally got three artists to come and work with the kids.

Well-known local artists Jan Horn and Mary Lee Hope and a friend of theirs, Sue Sonka, got together and did the prep work on the wall.

“I cut out paper flowers and taped them on the wall so when we ran over it with rollers we would leave flower shapes exposed, so it was like a big color book for the kids,” Horn said.

Director of Operations Kendra Wilson said club officials showed the artists how they wanted to incorporate encouraging and power words into a mural.

“We wanted it to be something that showed there were kids here, and be positive for the community as well,” Wilson said. “So the artists helped us make the background and then let the kids fill in the flowers.”

About 10 kids from the club were there to help paint the flowers.

“I really liked how it was all just coming together,” said 14-year-old Avie Bowers. “I thought it was pretty cool being involved and having the community see it, and I got a lot of good pointers on being an artist.”

Karissa Frahm, 11, a Joseph Lane Middle School student said she really had a fun time participating with the artists.

“I thought it was really cool that they let kids do it, instead of just hiring someone,” Frahm said.

Horn said it was a fun project for her and the other two artists to have the interaction with the students.

“The Boys & Girls Club offers help to so many kids in our community and they do such a good job with them there,” Horn said.

There is still a little work let to be done to finish the project and that will happen when they get a stretch of dry weather.

“We’re just going to finish putting in all the encouraging works that the kids will help us come up with, and then once we get those put on there, we’ll seal it,” Wilson said.