COOS COUNTY — The Coos Bay School District is part of a statewide effort to change the culture surrounding “truancy” or chronic absenteeism.
“The focus from the state on down is changing the message from being a hammer to ‘what can we do to help?’” said Superintendent Bryan Trendell. “Being a hammer doesn’t make change.”
CBSD is one of 27 school districts across the state in partnership with the Oregon Department of Education that have been given grant money to tackle the issue of chronic absenteeism. For a student to be chronically absent, they need to miss 17 or more school days.
“Missing 17 days, out of 36 weeks of school, is to miss one day every other week,” Trendell explained.
Since receiving the $45,000 grant funds, the district has used part of that to invest in the Remind App. This app provides two-way communication between parents, teachers and administrators and sometimes even high school students. Trendell said the app has been used for a number of years by some teachers at Marshfield High School to remind students about homework assignments, but is now being used throughout the whole district to mainly touch base with families when a student doesn’t show up for school.
“We communicate (on the app) that we notice their child isn’t at school and ask how we can help,” Trendell said. “That’s the direction we want to take … We realize kids get sick or things happen with family, but we will do whatever we can as a district to help. We need to do our best to get kids to school and be more positive to help these families and find out why kids are absent more than 17 days.”
The root cause
Though there is no clear cause for why students fall into chronic absenteeism, Trendell said it is now being tracked. Because these tracking efforts just began, there isn’t enough data yet to fully provide an explanation.
“We do know that the causes vary,” Trendell said, adding the district is aware that a number of absences are due to medical appointments. “We’re trying to do more partnerships with health clinics to make sure a kid doesn’t miss two or three days for doctor visits. We want to see if it can be something our school nurses can follow up on and communicate back to the parents so the kids don’t miss school for a checkup.”
Another known barrier with some families are when working parents have sick younger children and the older child stays home to watch them.
“That’s a double whammy because now we have two kids in the district absent that day,” Trendell said.
When asked if CBSD would ever consider establishing its own daycare similar to the one at the Coquille School District, Trendell said it is a possibility.
“The cost of daycare is expensive,” he said. “We’re looking at what we can do and how we can partner with entities in the Coos Bay area who already have daycares going.”
As one of the 27 school districts in the state trying to change the culture surrounding absenteeism, Trendell participates in a once-a-month conference call with the other districts. During those calls, he hears what people are doing and what is working.
“We’re seeing pockets in our district making good improvements,” Trendell said, pointing out that the other large school districts in the group are also seeing pockets of success.
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One of those successes at CBSD is in the district’s Native American tribal attendance, which he contributed to being a direct result of the Tribal Attendance Pilot Project Grant. This grant helped pay for a tribal attendance advocate who works with the district’s tribal families and develops a positive relationship.
“That is key, I think,” Trendell said. “The successes we see around the state are the small districts, where every kid and story is known. In the big districts you see these small pockets, like we see with our tribal attendance advocate, where they know the families and make a bigger impact.”
The challenge now is how to spread that success across the rest of the district.
Changing a culture
Right now, CBSD’s regular attendance numbers are hovering around 71 percent district-wide. To encourage more students to be “regular attenders,” perfect attendance is celebrated.
“We recognize those kids at the end of the year,” Trendell said. “But it’s not easy changing the culture. It’s not as simple as getting that message out there but continually getting that message out there.”
Also working to improve attendance is North Bend High School. In late January, a group of teachers and staff members attended a statewide attendance meeting in Gold Beach. While there, they listened to ideas on how to increase their already high attendance.
Right now, NBHS attendance is at 92 percent, according to Vice Principal Jake Smith.
During last month’s attendance meeting, Smith said NBHS left with positive ideas to get more students to want to come to school. One of those ideas is Capture the Flag.
“We’re going to make a flag with our logo,” Smith said, explaining that whichever first period class has the best attendance throughout the week will get a party and keep the flag until the next week. “It’ll be a silly, fun deal with everyone involved. The thought is if a kid gets to school first period, they’re likely to stay.”
Smith added that the attendance count might change from first period to other periods throughout the day, but not yet.
“It’s a positive way to get kids here to start the day,” Smith said. “It’ll be fun.”
As for CBSD’s efforts to change its attendance culture, there has been a positive trend with its elementary and high school students.
“It’s small, but it’s not going in the other direction,” Trendell said. “Over the next few years, we will continue to see an increase.”