Students arrive at Table Rock Elementary School around 7:45 a.m. The tardy bell rings at 7:50 a.m., and by 8:30 a.m. school staff are calling the parents and guardians of any child not in class.
Typically, there are about 50 students absent at Table Rock elementary on Mondays, about 25 on Wednesdays and about 50 again on Fridays, said Phil Ortega, the attendance, student services and homeless student support facilitator for the Eagle Point School District.
While the district may not be satisfied with that number, it has drawn praise from the Oregon-based Children's Institute for its efforts. The institute has identified chronic absences as a problem that will limit the success of Oregon’s move to full-day kindergarten unless school districts take steps. It cited as success stories efforts made at three school districts: David Douglas in east Portland, Hillsboro and Eagle Point — the latter specifically for its work at the former White City Elementary School, which is now part of Table Rock Elementary.
At the school, staff members start by going straight to the source, the students' homes. On the phone with parents, Ortega might say: “Good morning, this is Phil Ortega from Table Rock elementary, and your child has been marked absent or tardy. Can you confirm that your child is absent or are you running late?”
If the student is sick, school staff will offer to help set up an appointment or invite the parent to bring the student to see the school nurse. If it’s a transportation issue, staff will work with the family to make the necessary arrangements, Ortega said.
And sometimes the school buys alarm clocks for students, said Principal Ginny Walker.
Communication with parents is just one of the ways Table Rock elementary manages to keep its kids in class.
Students who miss 10 percent of the school year are identified by the Oregon Department of Education as “chronically absent” and consistently record lower test scores than their peers in class. Studies also show that poor attendance in kindergarten is a key predictor of future attendance habits and, therefore, reduced academic success.
Nearly 18 percent of Oregon students in 2012-13 and about 15 percent in 2013-14 were considered chronically absent, according to ODE’s state report card.
Based on a 2013 analysis by Attendance Works, Oregon and Arizona share the fourth-worst chronic attendance rate in the nation for eighth-graders.
Last year, an average of 15.4 percent of Eagle Point students, 15.7 percent of Ashland students, 9.1 percent of Central Point students, 18.7 percent of Phoenix-Talent students and 16.1 percent of Rogue River students were chronically absent.
Medford School District recorded a 32 percent chronically absent rate in 2013-14, but that was driven in part by a teachers’ strike in February. Medford, however, also recorded high absence rates outside of the strike year: In 2012-13, the district had a 20.75 percent chronic absence rate, while 21.7 percent of Medford students have been absent more than 10 percent of school days this year.
The most common reason children at Table Rock Elementary aren't in school is because they are sick or a family member is sick, Walker said.
However, sometimes older students stay home to take care of younger siblings or students are pulled out of school for weeks or even months to visit relatives in Mexico.
Walker was formerly principal of White City Elementary, which combined with Mountain View Elementary to form Table Rock Elementary. Third- through fifth-grade students attend at the former Mountain View campus, while kindergartners through second-graders attend at the former White City campus.
In the Children's Institute report, “Showing Up, Staying In,” released Wednesday, White City Elementary was praised for its “effective strategies” in encouraging attendance. The report noted that In the 2012-13 school year, 87 percent of White City Elementary students lived below the federal poverty line. Despite that, only 12 percent of its students were chronically absent that year, and only 11 percent were in 2013-14.
“Students don’t have as much control in their younger years, so it’s much more a partnership with parents,” Walker said. “We also try to motivate students to help and not hinder their parents in getting out the door in the mornings.”
Ortega, along with staff members at every school in the district, makes daily phone calls to the parents or guardians of the kids who don’t show up.
The staff isn't trying to chastise parents, rather they try to determine what barriers exist and how the school can help, Walker said.
When the ramp of one wheelchair-bound parent broke, he wasn't able to take his kindergartner to the bus stop, so the school arranged for the bus to stop in front of the student’s house, Walker said.
A few parents leave early for work and aren't home to get their kids out of bed, so several of them gave Ortega keys to their houses. If their student doesn't show up, Ortega heads to the family's house to wake them up and get them to school.
Table Rock Elementary also has created incentives for classes with 100 percent attendance. Classes with the highest attendance rate for the month are acknowledged over the public address system and are rewarded with spiffs like a popcorn party or extra recess or computer lab time, Walker said.
The district also has a meeting with representatives from each school monthly to analyze each grade's and school's attendance patterns.
“We look for trends that would give us an idea of what’s happening,” Ortega said. “For example, if one of the grades at one of the schools has a lot of absences because of the flu, then I call maintenance and custodial people to disinfect that classroom more regularly. I call it a blitz.”
The district asks parents to keep students home only if they have a fever, diarrhea or are vomiting, Walker said.
“We believe the sooner kids understand the importance of attendance and their parents understand the importance of attendance, the more likely they’ll be successful in the classroom,” Ortega said.
Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.