Out of class without a pass

Chronic absenteeism rates at THS are at 34 percent, 20 percent higher than national average


Hillary Currier

A teacher lectures to an empty classroom. A 34 percent absence rate equates to about 680 students, or about 19 empty classrooms.

By Jessica Krueger, Staff Writer

     Tigard High is at the heart of a national issue: chronic absenteeism. A chronic absentee is a student who has missed at least 15 days of school in one year, and chronic absenteeism rates have soared across the country.

     But while the nationwide average of chronically absent students is only 14 percent according to the United States Department of Education (USDE), reports from the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) show that Oregon has a significantly higher rate, with 20.5 percent of all students being described as “chronic absentees.”

     Chronic absenteeism has been a concern for decades, and attendance rates have only steadily worsened every year. This is especially true at Tigard High, which had a chronic absenteeism rate of 34 percent in 2018, much higher than both state and federal averages.

     Tigard’s chronic absenteeism rate is extremely high even compared to other Oregon high schools. Canby High, for example, has a chronic absence rate of 23 percent, while Sherwood and Lakeridge are lower still with rates of 16.7 and 17.5 percent, respectively. The only school that comes close to Tigard’s rate is Tualatin High, with a chronic absence rate of 32.5 percent. 

     Most concerning however, is that Tigard High only had a chronic absenteeism rate of 14.5 percent in 2014. This means that the percentage has more than doubled in the past four years, according to the ODE.

     Associate Principal Tyler Davila expressed his distaste for Tigard’s chronic absenteeism.

     “We’ve tried to do a better job of tracking attendance, and it appears as though attendance rates have dropped,” Davila said, adding that the attendance procedures should have been made more accurate in years past. Past attendance rates may have even been worse than actually reported.

     But chronic absenteeism is not solely an issue of statistics. It also brings real-life consequences. Lower test scores, class grades, and graduation rates have serious impacts on the student body’s success.

     By going to school every day, the hope is that students will not only learn essential skills such as reading, writing, and math, but life skills as well. At their core, schools aim to introduce successful young adults into an increasingly complicated world. However, as the percentage of chronically absent students grows, this goal is further and further hindered.

     Oregon’s graduation rates may be evidence of this issue. Only 77 percent of Oregon students graduated during the 2017-18 school year compared with an 84 percent nationwide average. Tigard High’s graduation rate, in contrast, appears resistant to the effect of low attendance with a graduation rate of 85 percent, slightly higher than the federal average. ODE reports show that while Tigard High’s attendance rate has plummeted, the graduation rate has slowly increased, although the accuracy of this comparison rests on the accuracy of the reporting.

     Despite the dismal outcome of chronic absenteeism, it is also important to consider the people behind the issue. Not all chronically absent students are skipping class for the fun of it. Students may miss school for any number of reasons including bullying, family and financial struggles, or even cultural differences. Frequent illness and lack of enthusiasm affect attendance as well.

     Davila pointed out that many absences he deals with involve students who miss school because of anxiety over a class or test.

     “People are not able to manage their stress,” Davila said. “Work starts to pile up or maybe a big test is coming, and students find the loophole and avoid it.”

     Davila further stated that many students would rather miss a class or risk detention than risk their grade. Although students miss school for a variety of reasons, Davila urges everyone to get help if they need it.

     “Advocate for yourself,” Davila said. “The sooner we [know] what that [attendance] barrier might be, the sooner we can problem-solve, and come up with solutions that will help.”

     Sometimes these solutions are simple. Davila recounted one student whose attendance troubles were solved after buying him an alarm clock. Without one, the student couldn’t wake up on time and frequently missed the bus. After getting the alarm clock, however, the student’s attendance improved greatly.

     Davila added that more generalized and broader solutions can include counseling, family outreach, and discussions on study habits.

     For students with valid reasons for missing school, being labelled as chronically absent can seem wrong and unfair. One chronically absent senior, Lucy Buchstaber, has struggled with ongoing medical issues and a full load of IB classes, and didn’t think being labelled as chronically absent fit who she was.

     “When I think of chronically absent, I think of someone who isn’t a good student and doesn’t pay attention,” she said. “I miss school, but I am still invested in my learning and catching up.”

     Chronic absenteeism has also taken a large role in Oregon politics and government. This fall, the ODE launched the ‘Every Day Matters’ campaign, which aims to increase attendance throughout Oregon. Although Colt Gill, the State Schools Chief, is optimistic about the campaign, he also hopes people realize that there is still more to be done on the issue of attendance.

     “Schools need to make sure students are welcomed and engaged,” Gill said in a relatively recent news release. “Families need to recognize the importance of attendance and every community needs to look at local barriers that can impact student attendance.”

     In order to prevent attendance barriers, Tigard has put an emphasis on high-yield teaching strategies and technology. This year’s new Chromebook carts are part of that effort. Davila explained that teachers are also encouraged to be intentional and thoughtful with the layout of their class by adding frequent breaks, lots of transitions, and various interactions.

     In order to promote better attendance and awareness over the issue, teachers have also been asked to wear special shirts with the words, “Attendance matters.” Whether this has any real effect on the student body’s morale is debatable.

     Despite the ‘Every Day Matters’ campaign and other efforts to increase attendance, however, the cure for chronic absenteeism will ultimately be as diverse as its causes.“There is not just one answer,” Davila said. Each school and student has its own host of problems to navigate, and Tigard High is no different.