Addressing Chronic Absenteeism and Trauma in Oregon

August 31, 2016 | Written By:

Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) is seeing some promising approaches to combating chronic absenteeism in the western part of the country. Much of our work around chronic absenteeism revolves around advocating for state and national policies that seek to address chronic absenteeism, particularly those that address the underlying health issues that so often cause excused absences. If policies are in place that support schools and communities in effectively tackling students’ chronic and acute health problems, then we can make sure that students are in school and ready to learn. And Oregon is putting policies into place that tackle health and chronic absenteeism in a big way.

In April, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a new policy that requires Oregon’s state education agencies to develop a statewide plan to address chronic absenteeism. This law directs the Oregon Department of Education and the Chief Education Office to create the state plan in collaboration with community and education stakeholders; the plan must include guidance and best practices for all schools to track absence rates and improve attendance. This innovative law links chronic absenteeism to behavioral health and funds a pilot program in select schools that will attempt to decrease chronic absenteeism by using trauma-informed approaches.

The story of how Oregon came to pass this law is one that demonstrates how some states can successfully create policies that support the connection between health and learning, and it also highlights the challenges that are ever-present around the country.

In 2014, the Oregon State Department of Education began calculating rates of chronic absenteeism and sharing the data, which showed that the state had a major problem with chronic absence. More than 17 percent of Oregon K-12 students were chronically absent, and these rates were even higher among low-income communities, Pacific Islanders and Native American students. Furthermore, chronic absence was unusually high among kindergartners—a trend that is particularly worrisome given that young children who are chronically absent are more likely to drop out of school in later years. This data was easy to access and already available to the public because Oregon includes chronic absenteeism in their state accountability systems and school report cards.

That same year, a broad coalition that included educators, health officials and child advocates worked together to learn about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their impact on children’s ability to learn as well as the causes and solutions for chronic absenteeism. This same coalition worked with other key stakeholders, such as one state agency and a school district to ultimately craft proposed legislation that offered a comprehensive approach to chronic absenteeism. This approach not only requires school districts to decrease rates of chronic absenteeism but also proposes a potential solution through its pilot program to introduce trauma-informed practices into Oregon schools. Hopefully, this results in a reduction in the effects of trauma on students and an increase in attendance so that students are in school and ready to learn.

At this point, one challenge of the law’s implementation is funding. The Oregon legislature has, thus far, only authorized $500,000 for the pilot which was originally budgeted at $5.75 million. However, a budget note allows the project to request funds from the legislature at a later point in the pilot’s implementation.

As schools around the country seek to reduce chronic absenteeism, other states should take note of Oregon’s path toward this new law. Without a system that allowed Oregon to collect and analyze its data on chronic absenteeism, the state would have been unlikely to realize how severe its problem was and be spurred to action. Oregon educators knew they also saw a problem with ACEs among their students. This pilot program will allow Oregon to access the necessary data on what practices are most successful at reducing chronic absenteeism and addressing ACEs. Thanks to the power of data, policymakers in Oregon are able to pass legislation that effectively addresses these two critical challenges in education.

Furthermore, residents of states across the country can learn other lessons from this story: proponents of this law built a diverse coalition of school stakeholders and got buy-in from state agencies who supported the proposed legislation and helped to pass it. As we go forward, HSC will eagerly keep our eyes on Oregon to watch the success of its trauma-informed schools pilot and see what lessons we can apply here in Illinois.

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Note - updated to the HSC Newsletter list 1.3.2017 per the updated newsletter configuration