It's been widely reported for years that children of color and students from families with low incomes have lower graduation rates than students from wealthier families.
But here's a complicating factor: Missing school can have a disproportionate effect on students who are otherwise at risk of not graduating or falling behind. That's according to a new analysis of OPB's Class of 2025 — a group of 27 students from East Portland who OPB has been tracking for more than five years.
Chronic absenteeism is a persistent challenge across public schools, but it tends to be worse in Oregon, where up to one in five students misses at least 10 percent of the school year.
With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, OPB commissioned Portland State University professor Fationa Aliaj to look at patterns behind who is achieving at grade level and who is not, by analyzing data from OPB's Class of 2025, as well as state and national trends.
Aliaj's research concluded poor attendance can be a drag on student achievement. It further found that for the Class of 2025, students of color, students learning English as a foreign language and kids from low-income families tend to suffer more academically when they miss school. That's in line with published academic and government research.
"Chronic absenteeism in Oregon has a disproportionate impact on specific populations: Oregon's American Indian and Alaska Native students, students with disabilities, students of color, students experiencing economic disadvantage and students who have received at least one out-of-school suspension," reads an Oregon Department of Education summary on chronic absenteeism.
It might seem obvious that attendance and achievement are connected. But national research shows that attendance in elementary grades has a lasting effect, because it sets habits and helps determine if students have strong academic foundations.
“Students who have 90 percent or above attendance rates at younger ages are more likely to be on grade level," said Christine McHone, school counselor at Earl Boyles Elementary. "That trend follows them all the way through high school.”
But improving attendance is complicated. Students all have different reasons for not coming to school.
“Attendance is a funny thing. So many variables impact attendance from transportation and clothes to medical conditions, incarceration, family stressors around housing or financial needs, translation requirements and babysitting,” McHone said.
OPB's Class of 2025 students started fifth grade in fall 2017. Jennifer DiFrances has several of the students in her class.
A few years ago, DiFrances taught second grade. She remembered a particular student whose family was having a rough time.
“They were experiencing just a ton of transition — some homeless issues, they were staying in a shelter ... It was really hard for them to get her to school every day," DiFrances recalled.
DiFrances has that student again this year as a fifth grader.
“She was absent again today after this long period of conferences and Thanksgiving break," DiFrances said. "I know she has really low self-esteem, and she sees that she’s missed a lot. I think she really does feel kind of defeated in the process of her education. I’m worried for her in middle school and high school.”
Teachers acknowledged some aspects of PSU professor Aliaj's analysis of attendance and achievement, like the effect absenteeism can have on students who are learning English.
“If a student is learning a second language, for example, it’s kind of conventional wisdom that if they’re practicing that language every day that they’ll gain more ground than if they’re not practicing that second language. That’s true for all of us,” said fifth grade teacher Kim Graham.
Graham said key skills like reading and language fluency depend a lot on being in school. She said, increasingly, students learn by speaking and listening to their peers rather than by working on their own.
“There’s so much classroom talk, and partner talk and discussion, and interactions that they have, so even if you were going to send that missed work home, it just wouldn’t be the same kind of experience,” Graham said.
Schools like Earl Boyles Elementary are encouraging teachers to be part of the solution when it comes to attendance. Part of that is by participating in school-wide incentives. But teachers are encouraged to take less formal efforts, too, like reaching out to parents or going to students' sports games.
At Earl Boyles, repeated absences might prompt what’s called a “positive parent phone call” to emphasize that a child is valued in class, without mentioning any problems.
Another Earl Boyles fifth grade teacher, Patrick Farinholt, said confronting attendance problems directly may come in later conversations. He recalled a recent conversation with a parent.
“Just being honest about the fact that, ‘Oh, your student is a little behind, and I’ve also noticed that they’ve missed a certain amount of school. And that about matches up one-to-one — kind of how far they are behind with how much they’ve missed,'" Farinholt said.
"That’s just a straight fact that can't be denied," Farinholt said with a nervous laugh. "I think it got through.”
Missing days can sometimes snowball, according to teachers. Coming back gets harder once you’ve missed a lot of time. But the same can happen with regular attendance. Jen DiFrances said she sometimes sees kids who feel so connected they’ll come to school, even when they’re not 100 percent.
“Or even they really feel very bad, and they’re sticking it out until after lunch," DiFrances said. "It’s just like, ‘Oh, you’ve been really hanging in there tough, buddy, all day, I really appreciate you being here.’ And they’re, ‘I know it’s important to be here.’ And they’re sick. If it was my kid, I might keep them home that day.”
Of course, kids should stay home if they’re really sick. But if they’re just feeling borderline — teachers want kids to come in, join their friends and see if learning helps them feel better.