Scott Graves
Curry Coastal Pilot

“It worked. Now he doesn’t come to school tardy,” said Leonard.

She also sent alarm clocks home with several other Kalmiopsis Elementary School children last year.

However, tardiness can often be just part of a much larger issue — chronic absenteeism — that teachers and school officials nationwide are trying to address.

“Chronic absenteeism is a statewide issue, and it’s a reality in Brookings,” said Alex Merritt, assistant principal at Brookings-Harbor High School. “We don’t have the exact rates, but it’s prevalent, particularly at the elementary school level and at the high school level.”

Chronic absence occurs when a child misses so many days of school — whether the absences are excused, unexcused or suspensions — that it negatively impacts his or her academic achievement.

In Brookings, a student is found to be a chronic absentee when he misses 18 days or more in a given school year, Merritt said.

He leads the Chronic Absenteeism Committee, a group recently established by Superintendent Sean Gallagher that includes several school administrators and teachers, including Leonard.

The committee’s goal is to reach out to students and their parents and work collaboratively to develop strategies that ensure school attendance. Simply dispatching a truant officer or sending threatening letters to the parents is no longer the norm. Neither is giving students detention or in-school suspension.

“We found that punitive measures don’t work. It alienates the parents and doesn’t change the behavior,” Merritt said.

At about the same time the committee was formed, the state of Oregon released a new study about chronic absenteeism and offered a plan of how to address it.

The study revealed that about 18 percent of students in Oregon are considered chronically absent and students more at risk were those who live in poverty and in rural communities. Girls have higher rates of absenteeism than boys in the middle and high school levels.

The committee members reviewed and will adopt the state’s recommended “Student Success Plan,” Merritt said.

Administrators and teachers at Brookings’ schools will use the new model to work with parents and students to find out what is keeping a student from attending school — and then develop strategies to fix it.

“We want to reach out to them, find out what’s getting in the way, and help them set goals,” Merritt said.

An alarm clock, for example, might be the solution for a student who is still asleep when the parent goes to work earlier in the morning. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding a relative or family friend who can drive the student to school.

Other things that might keep a student from going to school include fear of bullying, drug use (by the student and/or the parents) and family turmoil or distress.

Often, Merritt said, it’s a matter of helping parents who might have had a bad school experience themselves better appreciate how important attending school is for their child.

“Absenteeism has been linked to low reading and math performance, disciplinary and behavior problems,” he said. “The students are more likely to drop out of high school, are less likely to get their degree or go to college.”

Educating teachers about chronic absenteeism is another goal of the committee.

One of the first things teachers can do, Leonard said, is recognize and help students who struggle to get to school.

“My goal for next year is to get every teacher in every class to recognize these students early on and get involved with them and their parents so we can keep them in school,” Leonard said. “A child who is absent a lot at the K-school level is likely to have attendance problems all the way through high school.”

Merritt said the committee will next establish intervention levels at each of the district’s three schools, check into offering local parenting courses, collect attendance data at each school and communicate that information to teachers, staff and the public.

Merritt would also like the district to provide professional development to teachers regarding ways to encourage student attendance.

“It’s exciting to look at all this — there’s no reason why we can’t do this and be the model program on the coast,” Merritt said.