Think Out Loud

Schools across Oregon, nation grapple with attendance issues

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Dec. 5, 2023 5:45 p.m. Updated: Dec. 5, 2023 9:32 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Dec. 5

File photo from Jan. 8, 2021. A state report showed that 38.1% of all Oregon students are chronically absent, meaning they miss 10% or more days of school instruction. Kindergarteners and 12th graders have the some of the highest rates with 45% and 52.2%, respectively.

File photo from Jan. 8, 2021. A state report showed that 38.1% of all Oregon students are chronically absent, meaning they miss 10% or more days of school instruction. Kindergarteners and 12th graders have the some of the highest rates with 45% and 52.2%, respectively.

Elizabeth Miller


Last week, a state report showed that 38% of all Oregon students are chronically absent, meaning they miss at least 10% of school days. Charan Cline is the superintendent of the Redmond School District in Central Oregon. He joins us to share more on what this issue looks like in his district. Stacy Parish is the leader of Oregon Department of Education’s Tribal Attendance Promising Practices. She joins us to share more on what this issue is looking like for Oregon’s Indigenous students.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. As the Portland Public Schools teachers strike dragged on last month, we heard a lot about the class time that students were missing. The strike is over and the agreement between the union and the district includes makeup days. But even when schools in Portland or anywhere in Oregon are open, it doesn’t mean that kids are actually going to them. 38% of all Oregon students were chronically absent last year, meaning they missed at least 10% of school days. That’s according to the latest statewide report card that came out last week. We’re going to hear more right now about what these absences mean and what’s being done to address them. Charan Cline is the superintendent of the Redmond School District. Stacy Parish is the leader of the Oregon Department of Education’s TAPP Program. It stands for Tribal Attendance Promising Practices. They both join us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Charan Cline:  Thanks for having us.

Stacy Parish:  Thank you.

Miller:  Charan Cline, first. What are your attendance rates like right now in the Redmond School District?

ClineLast year we were sitting around 61% of our students having 90% attendance. This year, we’ve made a big jump. We’re up to 72% regular attendance. So 28% of our kids have chronic absenteeism. And our average daily attendance is around 92.2%.

Miller:  That’s a huge increase in regular attendance in just one year. How did you do it?

ClineWell, it’s a lot of work and we’re paying attention to it. We’re working on it. And it’s really not a one-year fix. As people came out of the main part of the pandemic last year, the most intensive part, it was an odd set of circumstances. We had a situation where we were telling parents and kids to stay home. And if you’re sick in any way, stay home. Make sure that you’re not coming in and spreading any kind of disease. And that message stuck with people for quite a long time.

Miller:  Just to be clear, I mean, the message was to stay home because we will bring school to you?

ClineWell, not just that. Once we started with regular school, COVID was still going on and we still had spiking cases going through. Back in the time of COVID, we were getting new mandates, sometimes weekly, about shifting around how we ran school. But even last year as it declined, we had lots of illnesses coming into the building. We had a flu that nobody had dealt with for a long time. So we had a lot of sick kids last year.

Miller:  You see a connection between that sort of society wide, maybe, temporary shift in terms of, at workplaces or at schools, how we deal with sickness and a different understanding of not spreading it? You think that has been sort of overgeneralized to become a message that it’s OK to not go to school?

ClineI think it was for a while. Sure. I mean, you give parents a set of directions and you’re working on it. And then you change those expectations. It takes a little while for people to hear that message and hear it over and over again. So yeah, I think that that creates a problem. We also created a situation where both adults and kids could do their work in a more flexible way. And I think people have said, “Well, if you did it once, why can’t we keep doing that?”

There’s been certain groups, lots of folks, both adults and kids, who would like to continue to work on a more flexible piece. People have had a little less commitment to the idea of coming to the school on a regular basis. We find that people are much more free about just pulling their kids out of school for vacations in the middle of the year as opposed to going on breaks. And so the idea of needing to be there every day is not quite as firm as it once was.


Miller:  I want to hear more about what you’ve been doing to counteract that. But as I noted, Stacy Parish is with us as well from the Oregon Department of Education and the Tribal Attendance Promising Practices Program (TAPP).

Stacy Parish, according to state data, nearly half of students who are federally identified as American Indian or Alaska Native were chronically absent last year. It’s the second highest rate after Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students who were at 55% chronic absenteeism. What do you see as the specific obstacles that Native students face when it comes to regular attendance?

ParishThank you so much for that question. I want to make sure that listeners really have the context to what TAPP is, first. TAPP stands for Tribal Attendance Promising Practices and it awards $1.9 million to 10 different school districts throughout Oregon to really assist them in addressing the root causes of chronic absenteeism with our American Indian and Alaskan Native students. And nine of those school districts are geographically adjacent to the headquarters of each of the nine federally recognized Tribes.

And our 10th and newest TAPP District is Salem-Keizer Public Schools. They’re our first urban district. To really start getting into the data, we see systemic issues, school system related reasons impacting engagement, and then really nuanced attendance challenges that are unique to our Indigenous students. And all of those have a tremendous impact on their chronic absenteeism rates.

Miller:  What do you see as some of the specific issues that are unique to Native students?

ParishSo much of our Native student population attends small rural TAPP districts. Those small rural towns are deeply impacted by systemic issues such as lack of affordable housing [which] is really leading to chronic housing insecurity and homelessness at alarming rates. They’re experiencing lack of access to high quality mental and physical health care, especially medical specialists, which just keeps exacerbating long-term illness. I mean, not to mention unprecedented staffing shortages in those areas. And then our small rural districts, with the highest number of Native students, have challenges attributed to simple transportation. Bus driver shortages and winter driving conditions on rural back roads are very real issues our small districts are facing.

And then you have some more school related reasons which we see, often just the lack of Native American cultural representation in schools. Our Native students aren’t seeing themselves reflected in the curriculum being taught or texts they are being asked to read. And they don’t often see themselves even in their physical learning environments, in artwork or poster signage. Native students in most of our school districts don’t have educators who look like them. And all of those things really impact their sense of belonging, which increases the lack of engagement in school.

Miller:  You’re talking about so many issues, society-wide ones that have to do with race and class and history and poverty, down to questions of representation in schools. What works? What do TAPP advocates do at the school level that’s been proven to actually cut through this and get students to be more likely to go to class?

ParishFirst and foremost, the most powerful impact TAPP has on students is it allows school districts to staff a full-time staff member who closely monitors daily attendance of our Native students and responds to realtime needs in a way that is very safe and nonjudgmental. That really sounds like a phone call that is, “Hello, we noticed your child isn’t in school today. Is everything ok? How can we help?” versus, “Your child isn’t at school today. Don’t you know they need to be there? Now they’re truant.” Our TAPP advocates, all across Oregon, provide rides to school. One of our school districts has purchased a van for this purpose. When you live in a rural area and are thrown just a few minutes off your routine, you’re gonna miss the bus, which is your only way of getting to school because you’re not going to walk three, seven, 20 miles. So our advocates get a text or an email from the student and they grab their keys and they go. And small gestures like that are everything because now that student is only missing maybe an hour out of school versus eight.

I think inflation has hit our Oregon families so hard and TAPP family advocates can provide a gas card to families who might be missing because they just simply cannot afford to get their child there. One of the big impacts of housing insecurity is just not having access to clean clothes. And our small rural districts don’t always have laundromats, so our TAPP schools have installed laundry facilities in the schools for family use. I can keep going on but it’s really these realtime needs and receiving them in a good way. For schools and districts to come together to address those needs that are making the gains that we’re seeing in Native attendance throughout Oregon.

Miller:  And I should say that there was a glimmer of good news in the most recent statewide report card that the regular attendance rate for Native students did go up two percentage points from last year.

Charan Cline, this may be obvious. But what are the effects of chronic absenteeism?

ClineSo, chronic absenteeism has a lot of impacts. We’ve got both national and local data on them. Right now, just at our middle schools, when we show the difference between a student who was attending regularly - at least 90% of the time - the average GPA for that student right now is about a 3.04. For our students who are at or below a 90% attendance rate, their average GPA is a 1.94. So if you just look at simple performance rates, we can see what’s happening with that. And we’re trying to let people know that, as part of our information campaign about how to be successful in school.

But we see that at the national level as well. If you look at the National Assessment of Education Progress, or the NAEP, you hear a lot about what’s there. For instance, a kindergarten and first grade student who is chronically absent has an 81% chance of reading below grade level, so a huge impact there. A student who’s been chronically absent in high school only has an 11% chance of receiving any kind of college degree. Ninth grade chronic absenteeism really is a better predictor of dropping out than pretty much any assessment score. We see a whole lot of impacts that are just about being there and being part of the curriculum, a part of the work that we do. So it has an enormous impact.

Miller:  Charan Cline and Stacy Parish. Thanks very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

ParishThank you so much.

Miller:  Charan Cline is a superintendent of the Redmond School District. Stacy Parish is in charge of the Tribal Attendance Promising Practices Program at the Oregon Department of Education.

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