Landon Braden said Eastern Oregon education is often negatively compared to Portland and Salem, so when the region exceeds expectations, he likes to celebrate it.
The InterMountain Education Service District chronic absenteeism coordinator has had something to trumpet about in recent months: Eastern Oregon’s 18.7 percent chronic absenteeism rate is nearly two points lower than the state’s 20.5 percent rate and represents a slight decrease from the year before.
Students are considered chronic absentees when they miss 18 or more days of school per year, 14 days if they attend a four-day-per-week district like Pilot Rock or Stanfield. Low attendance can lead students to poor academic performance and dropping out from school entirely.
The Oregon Department of Education eventually considered absenteeism enough of a problem that it drafted a statewide plan, dividing the state into regions and hiring Braden in July to work through the IMESD to assist the 26-district Eastern Oregon region that spans Umatilla, Morrow, Union, Baker, and Wallowa counties.
Every district in Oregon rated on a three-tiered system, based on their relation to the state chronic absentee rate and graduation rates.
Braden said he came into a situation where districts were already putting work into decreasing absenteeism.
“I wouldn’t trade places with any of you for a million bucks,” he tells his fellow absenteeism coordinators in other parts of the state.
Eastern Oregon is the only region where no schools are in Tier 3, the lowest tier that spurs the department of education to assign the district a coach. Six districts — Hermiston, Pendleton, Umatilla, Milton-Freewater, Stanfield, and Elgin — are in Tier 2, meaning Braden gives them targeted support.
But many of those districts are already starting to see their absentee rates fall.
According to Braden, the Milton-Freewater Unified School District 2017-2018 chronic absenteeism rate was 21 percent, a 1.8 percent drop from the year before. Umatilla (22.2 percent) and Hermiston (19.3 percent) saw a 1.4 percent and 0.7 percent decreases, respectively.
The Pendleton School District’s 20 percent rate did represent a 1.1-point increase, but Braden expected that number to drop again this year.
Braden said these districts embraced public awareness campaigns like Every Day Matters and Choose To Be Nice, a campaign designed to make schools more inviting through positivity. But he said a lot of the work is coming through parsing through the data and figuring out which demographics and groups local districts need to target.
Gib Olinger Elementary School already regularly hosted a math night event for students, but in November, the school invited Braden and other absenteeism officials to participate.
Students played with a slide bar that showed them how missing days would affect their math and reading scores and were able to take home an absence tracker that would help them individually track their missed days.
The booth was enough of a success that Braden said he’s in talks with four other districts to put on a similar event in their schools.
Gib Olinger Principal Ami Muilenburg said the school has taken steps to move away from a punitive approach to absenteeism to a positive one, like entering students with high attendance rates into drawings for prizes and special events.
In a wider scale, the IMESD is helping district to take a look at their populations that have trended toward high absenteeism.
Kris Mulvihill, the IMESD migrant education specialist, said some districts have a significant amount of migrant students who attend local schools before going back to Mexico when the harvest season ends. If those students miss more than 10 consecutive days of school, they’re automatically dropped from school rosters and considered chronic absentees.
Mulvihill said Braden helped create a survey that was administered to 200 migrant students about if and when they planned to leave for the season and what resources they needed.
With better information on which students are actually migrants that cycle in and out every year, Mulvihill said McLaughlin High School in Milton-Freewater was able to offer students online courses so they could stay enrolled while they were away.
Mulvihill said Mac-Hi is the only school to take this approach so far, but she expects other districts to make similar accommodations in the future.
With local districts experiencing some success in lowering absenteeism rates, Braden anticipates the states will reclassify Tier 2 districts down into Tier 1.
Already lower than the state average, the region has set a goal of lowering its chronic absenteeism rate further to 17.8 percent.
“The point of my job is to work myself out of a job,” he said.