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Missing roll call

Local educators and lawmakers fear that a proposed bill tying state funding to school attendance, rather than enrollment, does not take into account the parents’ responsibility in getting their child to school and could take resources away from schools with higher poverty rates.

Rep. Betty Komp, D-Woodburn, a former school administrator, introduced House Bill 2657-2 in the hope it would give schools incentive to be more diligent about fighting absenteeism.

The bill would change the state’s funding formula so that schools received money based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA) rather than Average Daily Resident Membership (ADMr), or enrollment. However, the bill does make an exception for students with excused absences or who are absent for a religious observance or practice.

Several states, including California, Kentucky, Idaho, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, distribute state funds based on ADA.

In her testimony Friday to the House Committee on Education, Komp said about one in five Oregon students is chronically absent and only half of the students in the state attend school regularly.

According to Stand for Children Oregon, one in four kindergartners in Oregon is chronically absent, compared with one in 10 kindergartners nationwide.

“I've been working 10 years as a legislator,” Komp said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I’m not going to judge what’s happening in schools. But I am trying to develop policies to help schools, and this will put an emphasis on this topic.”

Local administrators called the proposed bill “a real doozy” and “a nightmare.”

“It might inspire school districts to work even harder on attendance,” said Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Teresa Sayre. “But it’s my general feeling that we all work very hard at that anyway, because we realize that if (kids) aren't here they aren't learning.”

Sayre said HB 2657 would penalize districts for circumstances outside their control, such as a higher migrant population or a flu or chickenpox outbreak, and would make it difficult for the district to forecast future needs.

At the elementary level, office staff notify parents when their child does not show up for school, and teams at each facility meet regularly to look at academics, behavior and attendance, Sayre said.

The district also contracts a truancy officer through Southern Oregon Education Service District to make home visits and talk with the parents of students who are chronically absent.

This year, in addition to looking at “the big picture percentages,” Talent Middle School is focusing on individual students, said Principal Aaron Santi.

At the end of the last quarter, 23 of the 580 students enrolled in the school had missed a significant amount of school — more than seven days.

Santi worked with his assistant principal and student manager to look at each of these students' individual needs and problem solve.

For some students, it's a transportation issue, he said. For example, if they missed the bus, they didn't go to school. Others were anxious about being at school, embarrassed about their clothing or were trying to avoid another student.

“Every kid has a different reason for not wanting to be here,” Santi said.

“I won’t know until the end of the year if the overall attendance rate was affected (by our efforts), but I've had some good successes with individual students,” he said, adding that one student who missed 18 days in the first quarter has missed only one day since winter break.

Like Phoenix-Talent, the Medford School District has been proactive in reducing the number of absences.

“Attendance is a big deal to us always and just because we are on an ADM funding structure doesn't mean schools aren't concerned about attendance,” said Medford Superintendent Brian Shumate. “We believe that the more teacher contact time kids have, the more they are going to learn and the better they’ll test and perform.”

The district’s strategy, Shumate said, is fourfold: provide incentives for students, help families, take punitive measures against parents who aren't getting their kids to school, and “create an environment for kids to find connection, meaning and understanding in their daily lives.”

This spring, the district, in collaboration with SOESD, will conduct an attendance audit at the secondary level interviewing students, teachers and parents about attendance barriers. Afterward, attendance teams and administrators will review the data and brainstorm solutions, said Todd Bloomquist, director of secondary education.

All Medford schools have attendance teams, run attendance reports every two weeks and are responsible for forming their own tardy and attendance initiatives, Bloomquist said.

“In general, we flag students who are not attending on a regular basis, and when a student’s attendance rate drops below 80 percent, we get a little more assertive,” he added.

In 2013-14, about 90 percent of Central Medford High School students missed more than 10 percent of the school year. For this reason, the district employs two attendance officers — one is partially funded by SOESD — to make house calls and meet with students to discuss why they aren't showing up for school.

“The idea of the bill would force us to make sure that what we are doing is effective,” Bloomquist said. “But if there were additional dollars for attendance, that would be helpful.

“It’s expensive to run door to door,” he said.

Historically, schools with higher poverty rates have lower attendance rates, Shumate pointed out.

“So schools with higher poverty rates could conceivably get less funding (under HB 2657),” he said, adding that he hopes legislators look at the proposed bill objectively and consider ways to equalize the financial impact.

Starting last fall, the Eagle Point School District implemented a new attendance initiative at the kindergarten level “because we realize that attendance habits form early on,” said Superintendent Cynda Rickert.

Schools have increased their communication with parents, contracted with Attention2Attendance to collect data and started making home visits and rewarding classes for good attendance.

“If we can put pressure and support up front with those full-day kindergartners, then we can create the patterns we want right out of the gate,” said Rickert.

“Do I think we as educators own a part of attendance? I certainly do,” she added. “Do I think that we own all of attendance? I certainly don’t. A parent plays a very important role in getting a child out of bed and dressed and to school.”

Unfortunately, the proposed bill also would mean less rather than more money for attacking the issue of absenteeism and ironically conflicts with proficiency-based grading, “which is not based on seat time but what a student knows and is able to demonstrate,” Rickert said.

“I understand the urgency and need to do better,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with that. But making it all work is an interesting challenge.”

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said he believes the root of the attendance problem is not the school system but the parents.

“I understand the spirit of what Betty (Komp) is doing,” he said. “And Betty is a very intelligent woman and former educator, but I have some concerns about the bill that I will have to take a look at because I don’t want to put an additional burden on the school district.”

According to Komp's bill, the new formula would be phased in between 2016 and 2020.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Talent Middle School students walk the halls Tuesday. TMS works with individual students to reduce chronic absenteeism, as 'every kid has a different reason for not wanting to be here.' Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch