As Oregon lawmakers consider complicated ways to overhaul the state's public education system, a new study points to a very basic problem for schools. Many schools are struggling to get kids to show up. A new study finds nearly one-quarter of Oregon school kids are "chronically absent."
Chronically absent students miss at least one day of school every other week, on average. Today's statewide analysis from ECO Northwest showing the extent of Oregon's problem is new. But schools have been aware of that attendance problems for years.
For instance, Jakob Curtis, the principal at an elementary school in the David Douglas school district in East Portland, recorded this message for kids who weren't showing up last fall:
"Good morning, this is Mr. Curtis from Ventura Park Elementary. This is your reminder wake-up call. It is very important that you get up, and get ready for school. We really want to see you at school today. We will see you soon. Bye-bye."
The ECO Northwest study found that 23 percent of all Oregon school children miss at least ten percent of the year, or 17 days or more. ECO's president, John Tapogna, says that can't be explained by just a run of poor health.
"Chronic absenteeism, as we've looked at this, really points to motivation. Motivation both of students and parents around education," says Tapogna.
The study shows that if there's a problem with absenteeism starting in upper elementary grades, it continues to get worse through high school.
"You can see the gradual rise of chronic absenteeism, beginning in 5th grade, then continuing in 6th, 7th, and 8th and continues to go up through 12th grade. And I think in essence what you're seeing is just gradual dropping out by some kids," says Tapogna.
But it's not just a high school problem. ECO Northwest identified 24 percent of kindergarteners as "chronically absent" in the study.
And it found those students are more likely to have attendance – and academic - problems in upper grades.
The study found students from poor families are more likely to be chronically absent, but it found some low-income elementary schools are bucking the trend.
Waverly Elementary in Albany has kept its chronic absentee rate below 11 percent in the primary grades. Frank Caropelo is the principal.
"Kids want to be at school when they feel successful. I mean, like any adult, they want to do what they're good at, and feel good at. So our goal is not to fabricate success, but actually show them real success, and that's what gets them there, and gets them here to school," says Caropelo.
Caropelo says he knew his school had improved attendance in recent years, but he didn't know how Waverly compared with the rest of the state, before the new study.
John Tapogna with ECO Northwest says analyzing chronic absenteeism is new – much like measuring graduation rates was new a few years ago. He says the study raises a basic question for education leaders about what they're offering.
"They're delivering a product that they believe is critically important to the economic future of these students, and they're delivering it at no cost. But despite the fact that the product is at no cost, and we believe it to be critical, some kids aren't buying it. They're not taking it for free," says Tapogna.
Tapogna says groups like the state's new Education Investment Board ought to be asking "why?"