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Fewer Medford students are skipping class

The Medford School District saw fewer empty desks in secondary schools last year after implementing an attendance initiative intended to reduce chronic absences.

Students who missed more than 10 percent of the 175 days in the school year are considered chronically absent by the state. A study conducted by Oregon's Chief Education Office in 2016 points out that chronic absences could directly impact student outcomes and graduation rates.

Medford secondary schools saw an overall increase in attendance percentage in all grades — a 3.6 percent increase in grades 6 to 8 and a 4.2 percent increase in grades 9 to 12, according to the report cards released by the Oregon Department of Education in October.

“We are very proud to see an increase in regular attenders in middle schools and high schools this year,” said Natalie Hurd, district spokeswoman, about the report cards. “This is the second year of the new attendance system which we believe is helping create a positive attendance pattern.”

District officials implemented a system called Attention 2 Attendance (A2A) last fall to monitor students' attendance in secondary schools and help staff have a hands-on approach to get kids to school. The district did not use the system in the elementary level last year, officials said.

The goal is to break down the barrier that keeps kids from going to school, said Kevin Campbell, director of secondary student achievement.

“We didn’t have a coherent system before — we had a policy, but never a system,” Campbell said at the Monday School Board work session. “This system helps us create a culture of showing up.”

A2A, a software and service solution, keeps track of daily student attendance and identifies students with a tendency for chronic absenteeism. The system then informs parents via mail or email when a student misses four or more days. The software also helps school officials facilitate early intervention to prevent students from becoming chronic absentees, Campbell said.

Parents will receive a truancy letter when their child misses more than four unexcused days or an excessive absence letter when their child misses more than four excused and unexcused days. School officials will continue sending letters and emails to families if their child continues missing school and start taking a hands-on approach before students become chronically absent. Every six absent periods are counted as one absent day, Campbell said.

Last year, A2A sent out 20,135 letters and emails to parents on behalf of the district, according to data presented by Campbell.

“The letter writing mechanism helps us free up staff to do more things to get to know students and families and help them,” Medford Superintendent Brian Shumate said.

That help includes home visits and parent-teacher conferences, Campbell said.

“They make all the difference,” Campbell said. “It shows families how serious we are when we show up at their houses, and it also helps counselors see stuff first-hand of what is really going on at home that keeps students from going to school.”

Sometimes the schools help parents take away a student’s driver's license; sometimes the schools buy gas for family so they can take their children to school, Campbell said.

“The approach we always take is, ‘We’re here to help,'” Campbell said.

By the end of last year, Medford conducted 1,174 teacher-parent conferences — 79.2 percent of which are considered “closed” and resolved.

Campbell reported to the School Board that attendance rates for all secondary grades increased last year — by 1.9 percent in 12th grade, 1.3 percent in 10th grade, 1.6 percent in eighth grade, and less than 1 percent in seventh, ninth and 11th grades.

Central Medford High School, the district's alternative high school, remained a challenge, with a chronic absenteeism rate of 55.9 percent — more than double the rates of South Medford at 25 percent and North Medford at 22.8 percent, according to data presented by Campbell.

The state's report card shows Central Medford faring even worse, with a chronic absenteeism rate of 87.9 percent. Data collected through A2A reflects different statistics from the state's data because of the different methods of counting absent days, Campbell explained.

“Many of these kids are already chronically absent before high school,” Campbell said. “... We have to find what to do when we work solely with the students. There are parents in the picture, but in many cases, it’s more about working with that isolated student.”

Migrant and homeless students in the district also need more help from schools to make it to class, Campbell said. Either by working with the Maslow Project or with the families themselves, A2A allows constant communication, which officials hope will build a better relationship between families and schools.

The Medford School District's overall absenteeism rate in 2016-17 was 18.1, down from 20.6 percent in 2015-16 and 21.6 percent in 2014-15. The statewide average is 19.7 percent.

Oregon's chronic absenteeism was found to be one of the worst in the nation, according to 2014 research, and worsened last year.

Oregon Education Association President John Larson called the problem a “failure to properly invest in public education” in a press release Oct. 20.

Medford officials said the district is heading in the right direction with its attendance rate.

“It’s too early to tell if our attendance rates are affecting graduation rates — we just don’t have that trend data yet,” Campbell said. “But I can tell you that we are seeing positive results in a very short amount of time.”

Grade Level Attendance Percentage

— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@mailtribune.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.