Missing Class: '1/5 of the kids aren't showing up'

      EUGENE, Ore. - One in four Oregon students are chronically absent from class, according to a study of K-12 students in Oregon.

      "It's obviously very troubling but it does explain something about the low graduation rates that we have in the state and why so many kids struggle," Sen. Mark Hass, who chairs the Oregon Senate education committee.

      ECONorthwest studied chronic absences, defined as kids missing more than 10 percent of the school year.

      "One in five kids in Oregon, if you look across all grades, are chronically absent, which was a surprisingly large number," said John Tapogna with ECONorthwest. "And as we start to get the ability to compare to other states, it appears Oregon is on the high end."

      The study found one in four Oregon kindergartners was chornically absent, compared to one in 10 nationwide.

      Comparing absenteeism to test scores, the study found kindergartners with the highest absentee rates are not likely to catch up with their peers.

      And the students with the worst attendance in kindergarten were more likely to have poor attendance later in school.

      One possible culprit: views on education were shaped by the state's logging and manufacturing culture.

      "Oregon had a history of pretty well-paying jobs for people that didn't have a high school degree," Tapogna said. "When kids go home they have grandparents and maybe even parents who said you know what, back in my day, school wasn't really that important."

      The research indicates kindergarten and first grade are critical years for attendance in terms of predicting later success in school.

      According to the study, Howard Elementary illustrates the problem. Over 29 percent of students there are chronically absent.

      In contrast, one of the best performing schools in the area is Eugene 4J's Twin Oaks Elementary, where only around 9 percent of students are chronically absent.

      Howard's Principal Allan Chinn calls the issue complex.

      "Most of the time, unfortunately, it has to do with famillies because kids want to get to school but they need the help of their parents to get there," Chinn said. "So it's getting parents to be able to take that responsibility to get their kids to school every day."

      Parents and guardians can face a truancy hearing, resulting in fines, in extreme cases.

      When utilized, these measures work, Chinn said.

      But guidelines on when schools take action aren't uniform.

      "The district is working on a standard for when schools should send out truancy letters and be contacting parents," he said.

      Gary Roberts, a teacher at Cottage Grove High School, sees how missing instructional time affects kids over the years

      "As they miss, the gap gets wider and wider and wider," he said. "They're trying to play catch up. At the same time, they're trying to learn new information. A lot of them never get caught up."

      At Cottage Grove High School, 29 percent of the student body misses more than three and a half weeks of school per year.

      The South Lane School Disrict in Cottage Grove has put together an attendance team to work on the issue.

      "That attendance team has really focused on meeting with students one-on-one," Roberts said. "We've put together a positive attendance initiative with our students to work on trying to lower our number."

      Senator Hass believes there's a strong link between how much time a child spends in school and their future success. He hopes to introduce legislation that would lower the age Oregon children are required to go to school.

      Right now, state law says until a kid turns 7, school isn't necessary.

      "We have tried unsuccessfully in past years to lower that mandatory age from 7 to 5," he said, "and I think it is worth trying again, and I will introduce a bill the next session to do just that."

      Amidst the debates about funding, testing and teacher training, Tapogna notes a key fact might be slipping through the cracks.

      "We've sort of forgotten along the way," he said, "that 1/5 of the kids aren't showing up."