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A family celbrates their daughter's graduation from Franklin High School
Helen Silvis
Published: 15 October 2014

PHOTOS: Parents celebrate with students after the 2011 graduation ceremony at Franklin High School in Portland

A new report from Upstream Public Health finds that Oregon’s student absence rates are the fourth worst in the nation, with children of color and poor children most affected.

That’s a problem because when students miss even a day or two of school they are in danger of falling behind. And students who are absent more than 10 percent of the school year are far more likely to end up dropping out.

But what parents might not realize is that missing just two or three of days a month can put a student into that high-risk group.  

The Connection Between Missing School and Health: A Review of Chronic Absenteeism and Student Health in Oregon (pdf file) looks at the problem and what to do about it.

Why do Absences Matter?

One study found that one in four kindergartners miss too much school with low-income children four times as likely as higher-income children to be chronically absent. That matters, the report says because kindergarten is a crucial time for learning to read.

“Missed days means missed learning, leading to lower test scores and a reduced likelihood of graduating from high school,” the report says. “In a recent study, Oregon kindergarteners or first graders with high absenteeism rates were not likely to catch up to their peers’ test scores by 5th grade.

“Oregon cannot meet its ambitious graduation goals, or eliminate the achievement gap, without addressing chronic absenteeism.”

Why are Students Absent?

Tackling the problem means looking at the reasons behind the absences. The report says children miss school for many reasons.

Some children face barriers to attending such as lack of transportation; chronic illnesses such as asthma, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues; fear of bullying and lack of healthcare.  Some students don’t want to attend school because they are uncomfortable in the environment, the instruction doesn’t engage them or because they are struggling academically. And some parents simply don’t realize that absences are a problem, especially if they know about them.

Frequent moves, unstable housing and poor housing conditions are connected to increased absences, the report found, along with a history of traumatic events in the family and parents who suffer from depression.  

“ Recent research is examining how one or more adverse childhood experience such as residential instability, parental divorce or separation, witnessing domestic violence, involvement with child protective services, jailed family members, substance abuse among family members, community violence, having unmet basic needs, mental and physical disorders among family members, and caregiver death put children at a risk of severe attendance problems, academic failure, severe school behavior concerns, and frequent reported poor health. Children in these circumstances experience regular emotional pain, may become aggressive, and are closed to new learning – all behaviors that can result in misunderstandings among educators and other caregivers.”

Oregon’s high rate of child hunger is also a major concern, the report says.

“In 6-12 year olds, a lack of food has been associated with absenteeism, as well as poorer math scores, grade repetition, and tardiness,” it says. “In Oregon, 16 percent (1 in 26) of households with children are food insecure or hungry. This means that potentially on average across all schools at least one child in every Oregon classroom does not know where they will get their next meal.

“In 2013, 16.1 percent of 8th grade and nearly one in five (19.3 percent) of 11th grade Oregon teens ate less in the previous year than they felt they should, because there wasn’t enough money to buy food.”


Schools Must Tackle Pushout

Franklin-grads-web Some schools may also be part of the problem, the report says. Not all schools have a culture and climate that makes all children feel safe, welcomed and accepted.  Then there is the problem of school pushout, where school policies lead to high rates of suspensions and exclusions, especially for Black students.

“The school climate also affects children’s willingness to ask for help in bullying situations. One study found that in a school where African American students were referred to the office for discipline three times as often and suspended five times as often as Caucasian students, African American students were less likely to seek help from teachers for bullying or threats of violence.”

What can be done to help reduce absences?

Every child, every family and every school community is unique, so many different strategies will be needed, the report says.  

When families need support to meet their basic needs community agencies should partner with schools to offer wrap-around services, for example.

“Key factors that are largely outside the education system include healthcare access, transportation options, housing and cultural barriers. Given these challenges, Upstream recommends communities work collectively, across sectors and across agencies to identify and address major factors influencing children’s chronic absenteeism by involving schools, families or caregivers, social services, culturally-specific community organizations, public health organizations, and businesses to determine what will work best in each community.”

At the school level, the report says skilled, caring teachers can make a big difference. Students are more likely to stay in school when they believe what they are learning is important and relates to their lives. And students of color respond better to multicultural learning material and teachers who are culturally aware. Rewarding good attendance has also been shown to reduce absences.

“An educator can support student interest by using instructional practices where the subject is related to student’s lives, involves connections across subjects, is technology-rich, is positive, challenging and open, involves respectful peer collaboration, where educators learn with students. After-hours programs and youth development programs also tend to improve attendance.”

Communication between teachers and parents can help too. When parents are involved in their child’s education, children’s attendance improves. And when parents understand how important attendance is to classroom success, they make sure their students are in school.

Other useful strategies discussed in the report include: school-based health centers; counseling; and making sure parents are quickly informed of absences. Download the full report here.




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