Solving health issues to get more kids to class

Solving health issues to get more kids to class

(Ore.) State officials in Oregon taking a new look at an old problem have found that tackling health problems is one way to improve chronic absenteeism.

The collaboration between Oregon’s Public Health Division and its Department of Education is still in the early stages but there’s clear evidence that healthy kids are far more likely to make it to school.

“In the public health division we really understand that there are key drivers of the health of people in our state, and one of those key drivers is their level of education,” said Isabelle Barbour, a policy specialist in the Public Health Department. “So we reached out to the Oregon Department of Education to create a partnership to see how we can as state agencies better collaborate on a range of issues, including how to boost high school graduation rates by addressing chronic absenteeism.”

Oregon has one of the lowest on-time high school graduation rates in the country but it is not the only state attacking educational achievement gaps by trying to reduce chronic absenteeism, defined as a pupil missing more than 10 percent of school days.

A host of research in recent years showing absenteeism’s impact on third-grade reading and math skills, as well as its correlation to student drop-outs has fueled national and state efforts to address the issue. In fact, this year’s newly-reauthorized federal education law – the Every Student Succeeds Act – increases the emphasis on keeping more kids in class by requiring Title I schools to report chronic absenteeism as one metric for measuring student outcomes.

Several Oregon districts, according to Barbour and her liaison at the department of education, Robin Shobe, have already implemented various strategies aimed at reducing absentee rates, from electronic data tracking systems and staff home visits to curriculum changes designed to make learning more relevant to students.

But with one in six Oregon students (17 percent of the K-12 population) categorized as chronically absent, there is much more work to be done.

Because there are varied factors that contribute to student absenteeism, the education department is engaged in multiple efforts that involve working with schools, communities and local agencies to identify root causes and reduce the number of school days students miss.

“We know from national data, for example, that asthma in students is one of the leading causes of health-related chronic absenteeism so in our work with the department of education, one of the things we want to look at and include in our messaging around chronic absenteeism is that there are strategies that can be examined or thought about that are not necessarily based in the education sector,” said Barbour.

Realizing that regular attendance plays a key role in a student’s ability to read at grade level as early as third grade, and that a higher education level translates to better health, Barbour said her department created a task force to research funding opportunities for school nursing and school-based health centers that can support student attendance.

Attempting to remove health-related barriers, however, is just one piece of the puzzle, as there are many reasons kids may not be making it to class, Barbour and Shobe said, from transportation and family work schedules to attitudes and myths that missing a few days of school here and there won’t negatively impact a child.

Helping districts track and properly analyze attendance data is a key starting point in the fight against chronic absenteeism, said Shobe, who noted that the department is sponsoring a comprehensive attendance audit – created by a recently retired Oregon school superintendent – that will help in that endeavor.

“We know that looking at data on attendance is incredibly important,” Shobe said. “So a big focus for us, too, is really teaching districts why attendance is extremely important and how to use their data to figure out who isn’t showing up, especially in the early grades before negative patterns are established.”

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