News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Attendance in focus for Sisters students

A recently retired teacher from the Sisters School District had a saying for students when it came to the importance of school attendance: “I’m good, but I can’t teach you anything if you’re not here.”

Data underlines this truth, as students with poor attendance form gaps in learning and tend to lag behind their peers in school performance.

Sisters School District is implementing an initiative called “Strive for 95” this year to encourage students to have no more than two absences a quarter, which equates to eight total in a school year to achieve a 95 percent attendance rate.

Work started on the goal from the beginning of the school year, with a number of incentives and initiatives put in place to help encourage good attendance and draw attention to its importance.

The elementary school drew attention to the attendance initiative in a big way to start the school year when police, fire and other emergency vehicles descended on the campus at the start of the day with emergency and police personnel handing out donuts to parents and thanking them for getting their kids to school on time.

That was the kick-off, but the School District has long-term plans to improve attendance in the District.

“Our current goal is 87 percent, which is anticipating growth from 84 percent,” said elementary principal Joan Warburg. “As a point of contrast, my previous state had a goal of 95 percent and my previous school had an attendance rate of 97 percent. That state had a lot of initiatives in place to encourage school attendance.”

In-house incentives appear to be working as well, according to Sisters Elementary Principal Joan Warburg and District Vice Principal Tim Roth.

According to Warburg there are a number of reasons elementary students miss school, some of which are more avoidable than others.

“We have many families who take trips during the school year which impacts their students’ attendance,” said Warburg. “Some of those trips are for special reasons that must happen during the school year; perhaps others could consider traveling during one of our many school breaks.”

Sickness is always a factor and easier to deal with than other absences, she explained.

“This year we had students who were ill for extended periods of time and we worked with those families to support their students in their healing.

However, neither vacations or illness have the same significant impact on a student’s achievement as the students who regularly miss a few days a month for a variety of reasons.

Those students lose track of the content that the rest of the class is learning and are continually playing catch-up while their peers move ahead.

These students then don’t want to come to school because they feel lost and behind, which causes a perpetual cycle as students fall further and further behind.”

One of Warburg’s concerns at the elementary level is that parents sometimes make a wrong assumption that missing school in the younger grades is not as big of a deal as missing in later grades.

“Research shows that students need to be in school regularly in order to achieve academic success. When a student misses days of school in kindergarten and first grade they begin to have gaps in foundational skills that teachers in higher grade levels expect students to have mastered. In fact, there is a large body of research out of California correlating missing just 8 or 9 days in kindergarten and first grade with dropping out of high school,” said Warburg.

Warburg used a metaphor to explain how numerous absences over time impact learning: “I would liken absenteeism to going to a movie in a theater and leaving the theater multiple times during the movie. When a person gets up and leaves the theater, when they return they are lost as to the plot or context of what is happening in the movie, which hinders the enjoyment of the rest of the movie. There is no rewind button, so that person will not fully grasp or enjoy the full movie. In school, we are unable to rewind the learning for students who have been absent, so those students have to try to catch up and grasp what they have lost in their learning,” she said.

Being chronically late, even by a few minutes, also causes problems. “If kids don’t get off on the right foot in the morning, their whole day can be impacted negatively,” said one elementary teacher.

Warburg and Roth are both working on increasing parental awareness on this topic and also giving positive acknowledgement to students for being in school.

At the elementary school, counselor Kate Kuitert and Warburg are working with families to help students who are struggling with attendance. School Resource Officer Deputy Brent Crosswhite will be making home visits and meeting with families as well, as necessary, with cases of chronic absence, according to Warburg. Oregon’s compulsory attendance law deems non-attendance by students may result in a citation for a Class C violation, which may include a fine.

However, Sisters School District is focused on being proactive — rather than punitive — whenever possible.

Warburg described incentives in place at the elementary school.

She said, “Each classroom works to earn a popcorn party by spelling SES OUTLAWS; the class gets one letter each day all students are present and on time. We have special celebrations for students who have 95 percent positive attendance and are currently working on other incentives to support positive attendance. The entire staff also works very hard to ensure that students feel that they belong and want to come to school and be a part of their community.”

Roth is dedicated to improving attendance at the upper grades as well.

He is behind the campaign “Strive for 95,” which includes the goal of all students striving to hit a 95 percent attendance rate in the years to come.

That is a high goal, given that the current rate at the high school is just 79 percent. The middle school fares better at 86 percent. The current year goals are to increase to 82 percent and 90 percent respectively, according to Roth.

It is important to note that the attendance rates include missing school-sponsored co-curricular activities.

To put the 95 percent rate into context, it means that a student would miss no more than eight days in a school year.

“But the bottom line is that we need kids not to miss for reasons that are avoidable,” he said. “School is our students’ first and most important job. They are learning more than math and reading. They are learning how to show up on time every day, to be part of a community that values and needs their participation, not only in the classroom, but in the cultural fabric of our school.”

Roth’s aim is to keep this attendance campaign as positive as possible, and wants students and families to understand the school has resources to help.

“Students miss for a variety of reasons, and we understand that extenuating circumstances can exist that affect attendance, but we want to help take away barriers to good attendance,” he said. “We have resources to support our students socially, emotionally, and in their academic classes. For example, we can provide helpful information on setting boundaries around phone and social media use, identifying when it is appropriate to keep your student home for being sick, improving sleep habits, creating a morning routine, as well as teaching coping strategies for anxious thoughts and feelings.”

He added, “Communication between the school and families is key.”


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