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Our View: School success is about more than the three Rs

Oregon's top education officer says she wants to reduce alarmingly high absenteeism in the state's public schools and focus on teaching primary students to read by grade three. If Nancy Golden wants to make sure students show up for class, she should get away from the "just the basics" approach.

A series of reports in The Oregonian revealed that Oregon's public schools have the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country: Nearly 20 percent of students statewide missed at least 10 percent of the school year in 2012-13. In addition, graduation rates are abysmally low. Only 68 percent of the class of 2012 graduated on time — the second worst rate in the country.

That those numbers are unacceptable should go without saying. What to do about them is another question.

Certainly early reading instruction is one key. Research shows 75 percent of students who struggle with reading but don't get extra help until after third grade will be poor readers the rest of their lives. At the same time, 85 percent of students who get help with reading before third grade can be brought up to average reading ability.

The ability to read and read well is fundamental to everything else a student does in school and in life.

But even average or above-average readers won't come to school if there is nothing there to keep them interested. That doesn't mean the basics of language arts and math should be neglected, but it means schools must offer more. More means music, art, theater, dance — all those subjects frequently derided as "frills" when school budgets are discussed.

Medford's new superintendent, Brian Shumate, knows very well that one person's "frills" are the entire reason for some students to attend school at all. In a get-acquainted meeting with the Mail Tribune editorial board, Shumate continually stressed his desire to make school more attractive to more students.

For some students, that may mean stimulating math and science classes. For others, it may mean the opportunity to play in the band, or sing n the choir. Shumate said one of the high schools where he was principal in  Louisville, Ky., started a guitar class. Students, many of whom were at risk of dropping out, had a reason to come to school every day.

The point is not to turn every student into a professional guitarist, but to give them a reason to show up. They can't very well absorb the core academic subjects if they aren't in class.

That means making sure all the focus isn't on academics. Research shows that students who participate in music classes perform better in academic subjects as well. Unfortunately, music and art programs often are the first to go when cust must be made. If that has the effect of driving away students who otherwise would attend, it's counterproductive.

School funding is primarily dependent on the Legislature, and the amount of money available for schools and all other government spending depends on the health of the economy.  But let's not forget that students who strugggle to graduate and and don't read well when they do aren't likely to contribute much to that economy.