OPB has been following a group of students in the Class of 2025 after the state of Oregon set a goal that every student starting with that class, should successfully complete high school. The group of students OPB is following started together at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Southeast Portland. The students in OPB’s Class of 2025 are now sophomores in high school.
It may seem obvious, but regular attendance is key to succeeding in school, and ultimately, making it to graduation. But in the two years since students returned in person, attendance rates across the state and the country have remained below where they were before the pandemic.
Leyna is a student in OPB’s Class of 2025, a group of students we’ve been following since first grade. She sings in the choir and has friends at school. This year, she’s met new people, but she’s also in some difficult classes.
“I was kind of intimidated by the workload and the pace we were going at,” Leyna said.
Those classes have become even more challenging because she’s been out sick and missed a lot of school.
“I’ve had problems with my stomach, and then dizziness,” Leyna said.
At her home in Southeast Portland, Leyna sat on the couch with her mom and younger sister. Her mom Lan Nguyen explained that sometimes she’s had to pick her elder daughter up from school in the middle of the day, adding to stress at home.
“It’s hard, a little bit hard for me,” Nguyen said. “I keep telling her you need to work hard and focus.”
Leyna hasn’t had COVID, Nguyen said. But sometimes Leyna has trouble breathing. Her mom said doctors don’t know what’s going on with her daughter. Nguyen has tried to get Leyna to take more vitamins, but it’s been hit or miss.
“I wish I could be at school more often but I feel like I just don’t have enough energy to really get [up] and go because like, I get dizzy,” Leyna said.
Missing school means falling behind in classes.
“It kind of feels like I’m in quarantine all over again,” Leyna said. “I don’t really remember what happened, and how I had to catch up with everybody. I feel like I don’t really fit in with the level I’m in right now.”
Attendance isn’t just a Class of 2025 problem. It’s an issue statewide, and across the country, as students returned to full-time in-person school after distance learning. Students miss school for lots of reasons — from illness to anxiety about school to obligations at home. Chronic absenteeism is not going away — leaving staff members wondering how to help students not in school catch up — or feel included.
Being at school is crucial to passing classes and getting a high school diploma.
“It’s hard to graduate if you’re not here,” said David Douglas High School counselor Kagan Young.
School staff points out that showing up means more than just going to class. For students who have anxiety about school, David Douglas offers counselors. Students who are feeling disengaged, school leaders point to clubs and after-school activities. But staff can’t easily help students who don’t show up.
“It’s frustrating, I will be honest and say that,” said another counselor, Mario De Ieso, “because when a student isn’t here, it’s much more difficult, if not impossible, often, to help them, to support them, whether it be in the classroom or social emotionally.”
What does the data say?
The state considers a student a “regular attender” if they attend school 90% of the time. State and district officials have a 90-95% goal for student attendance.
In Oregon, 64% of students — fewer than two-thirds — were “regular attenders” in 2021-2022, the most recent data available.
In 2018-2019, the school year before COVID-19, it was 79.6%.
At David Douglas High School, 68.8% of students were regular attendees in 2018-2019, dipping to 59.2% in 2021-2022.
The flip side to regular attendance going down is that rates of chronic absenteeism — students who miss 10% or more of school days — have gone up. Statewide, 36.1% of students were chronically absent in 2021-2022. At David Douglas High, 40.8% of students were chronically absent in the same year.
State officials say attendance rates from 2020-2021 and later are “not directly comparable” to rates from prior school years due to changes in how data has been reported during the pandemic.
Attendance has fallen off schoolwide, at David Douglas. Before the pandemic, at least half of students were at 95% attendance or higher. But since coming back to school last year — that number has gone down to 92%.
“Since students returned to school after the worldwide pandemic, unexcused absences have increased,” said David Douglas principal Greg Carradine. “Some students are still learning how to attend high school.”
District officials note that some general attendance trends hold true, regardless of a global pandemic. In a student’s career, attendance tends to start low in kindergarten before peaking in late elementary and declining from there. In a single school year, attendance is highest in September and then “trends down” the rest of the year.
David Douglas High School student engagement specialist Jeremiah Branch says while the “vast majority” of students attend school pretty regularly, there are outliers who are gone a lot
“Some kids don’t come more than once every 9-10 days,” Branch said.
Like Carradine, Branch said some students were at home in distance learning and never formed the critical habit of showing up to high school every day
“We are seeing more kids than ever who skipped the part of development where they learn to navigate a four-period day, a crowded cafeteria, and packed hallways for passing time,” Branch said.
Some staff members say they’re also seeing more students stay away from school if they’re sick with COVID or other illnesses — which is also going to drag down attendance.
What missing school looks like — and feels like for students
Anais hates being sick, but it’s been happening more. She and her whole family have had COVID, and she says she still feels the effects. She’s another Class of 2025 student at David Douglas.
“I feel like it took most of my immune system with it,” Anais said. “I’ve just been getting sick really easily and I just hate it.”
Sleep has been difficult. She’s had trouble breathing and problems with her back. Anais estimated she’s missed probably a month and a half of school.
“When I’m sick I’m also in pain — you can even ask mom. She will know when I’m sick because I’m full-on crying and I don’t feel well.”
Doctors told them over the winter that Anais might’ve had the flu, but she remained sick for weeks afterward.
“It’s hard getting back from being sick, especially for how long I’ve been gone because you have to make up so much work,” Anais said. She noted that teachers have different expectations for finishing her work.
“Some classes are like … ‘you should’ve told us when you were sick,’” Anais said. “Well, I didn’t know I was going to be sick for so long, so I’m sorry!”
She’s fallen behind in her classes. Her mom Josette Herrera has been frustrated with how missing school has hurt Anais’ grades.
“If my daughter was skipping school or they’re unexcused, I can understand, ‘OK, drop her grade’ but she’s sick,” Herrera said. “... You don’t want us to send our kids to school sick but then they’re not willing to give the kids make-up work or they’re failing them.”
This month, Anais and Leyna have been back at school, their moms say, intent on a strong finish to a tough sophomore year. They want their teachers to understand they’re a bit behind — and to be patient as they catch up.
Not every student is missing school because they’re sick, though. Anais and Leyna said they know there are students who skip school.
Branch, the student engagement specialist, has seen a growing number of students in school or on campus but not in class. They’re still counted as absent.
“Some will find their way to the hall and go on a very long walk,” Branch said. “Some will avoid class in the bathroom. It seems to run more deeply than just not wanting to go to class. It’s like they are compelled to avoid it.”
“School seems to be a facility or building to them rather than a necessary experience that precedes adulthood,” Branch said.
Range of school staff take different approaches with attendance
Debbie Kiyokawa is David Douglas High School’s first attendance coordinator in years. She comes from an elementary school in the district. In her role at Oregon’s largest high school, Kiyokawa makes calls home to families and students, to help them to come to campus. At the school, she’s often walking the halls to check in on individual students to see if they make it to class, setting realistic goals with students to attend more of their classes.
“Honestly, I never thought I’d be at the high school,” Kiyokawa said. “They scared me, but I love it here, I do. I almost love high school as much as I did my little kids.”
Kiyokawa offers incentives — like candy or a free lunch — when students make it to a few classes. But she can only do so much.
“I feel like a lot of it is out of my hands,” Kiyokawa said. “I mean, I could sit down and I can talk with the kids. I can give them strategies, I can give them suggestions. But the hardest part is it’s the kids that have to do it themselves.”
Though there might be a billion reasons kids miss school, there are a billion more reasons why they should be in school. And a billion possible solutions.
Sometimes it takes one-on-one adult intervention to help a student get to school. Other times it takes calls home, or an engaging activity that requires students to maintain good academic standing to participate.
No one person can do it all. It’s everyone’s job and everyone’s problem to solve.
Students who struggle the most with attendance may end up at a portable classroom on the edge of campus run by Nate Owings. Years ago, he was the school’s attendance coordinator. He also taught science. Now he’s one of two teachers at the high school’s Day Academy, a course for students who have failed one or more classes. Students use the Day Academy period to complete classes virtually, and they’re able to bring an F to a passing grade to receive credit.
Owings sees only a small part of the total high school population. But he connects with students who are among the most disconnected, some who have missed so much school they’ve failed multiple classes.
“Grades and attendance are so closely related that I can usually look at one of those and know what the other is,” Owings said.
If a student shows up to Owings’ Day Academy class, he sits them down for a talk in the “hot seat,” a chair next to his desk.
“What I try to do is, frame it as that, if you’re skipping classes it’s hurting you,” Owings said. “The other thing is, you should be happy when I call you up here… you should be happy that someone’s taken the time to take a look at what’s going on and try to steer you in a different direction.”
The pandemic highlighted the importance of being at school and feeling connected to adults and peers. But it also shined a light on what young people are going through — such as bullying, anxiety and other mental health issues.
Counselor Kagan Young said school staff is trying to balance supporting kids with holding them accountable.
“Walking along that line now, I think, creates a challenge in trying to get back to an expectation that we held before, but also being thoughtful and caring in relation to what they’ve been through,” Young said.
Teachers are also trying to find that balance, especially when students return from being away.
Sometimes students tell Owings they think they’re too far behind. They have anxiety about showing up at school, or they have lost confidence. But, like Kiyokawa, he starts with a goal of just getting students to class.
“There’s three reasons you’re gonna get better. One, you’re in class, getting points. Two, the teachers are gonna start taking you seriously and three, you’ll start feeling confident in yourself.”
Steven Andreen teaches social studies classes at the high school and science to students in David Douglas’ online program. When students don’t show up to his class, he said he reaches out to Kiyokawa. But when they get back to his classroom, he makes sure they feel comfortable, no matter how long they’ve been gone.
“You never want to have a kid show up after three weeks and be mean to them, and be like, ‘Hey, where you been, here’s your referral,’” Andreen said.
“That’s a delicate situation — you want to welcome them back and help get them back on track but at the same time we want to build in that responsibility like you can’t just disappear for a couple weeks and then come back and get your B.”
Andreen said it’s important for students to learn that accountability lesson in a place that’s also supportive.
“It’s not that forgiving everywhere else.”