One in five students in Spokane are 'chronically absent.' Can schools change that?

click to enlarge Schools in Spokane encourage regular attendance to boost academic performance. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Schools in Spokane encourage regular attendance to boost academic performance.

If there's one thing Rebecca Parrill wants everyone at Adams Elementary to understand, it's that attendance matters.

Parrill, the principal assistant, is sometimes referred to as the "attendance guru" by staffers at Adams, located on Spokane's South Hill next to Ferris High School. She's led the effort to remind Adams families every which way that kids should be in school, making the message obvious for anybody in the vicinity of the building. The electric sign by the street boasts of class attendance rates. In the visitor's office, flyers and magnets explain when a sick child should miss school and when they shouldn't. Classrooms display blue ribbons to celebrate good attendance. Even away from the building, parents get texts reminding them why kids should be in school.

"Our big goal this year has been connecting with families and educating them on the importance of regular attendance," Parrill says.

It's a message that's slowly caught on in Spokane, as poor attendance rates dog schools here and across the state. Washington students miss school more than students anywhere else, national statistics suggest. And schools in the Spokane area are no different: Last school year, just over 19 percent of students in Spokane Public Schools were counted as "chronically absent," meaning they missed at least two days of school per month, according to data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Spokane Public Schools' own data, which also counts students even if they were enrolled in school for a brief time, has the chronic absenteeism rate even higher: Roughly 30 percent. Both figures are higher than Washington overall and easily surpass the national average of 16 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Central Valley School District's rate of absenteeism, meanwhile, is roughly 21 percent, higher than Spokane, OSPI data says.

"It takes a long time to develop habits and it takes a long time to change habits."

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Chronic absenteeism is intertwined with systemic issues in schools, as it both predicts student achievement and indicates challenges students face at home. Research suggests it's associated with lower test scores in younger grades and a higher risk of dropping out of high school. Yet sometimes the root causes for missed school days, such as family trauma, can be difficult for schools to address.

Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national initiative aimed at addressing chronic absence, says the issue of chronic absenteeism calls for a variety of changes to school environments to encourage attendance.

"It's a canary in the coal mine of large issues you need to address," Chang says.

A PROCESS

While chronic absence is by no means a new phenomenon, it's been a growing topic of discussion for schools as more state agencies started tracking it several years ago, due in part to the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Washington included it as an accountability measure in its ESSA implementation, and as the data has revealed the extent of the issue statewide, it's continued to raise concern among school officials.

Students can be chronically absent for any number of reasons, from a sick day, to not feeling welcome, to not having a ride to school. Chronically absent kids aren't always ditching school, as it counts excused absences and suspensions.

Washington seems to consistently have one of the worst rates of chronic absenteeism in the country, and in fact was the worst in 2015-16, according to the most recent data available that's collected by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Oregon is right behind. Yet even national experts like Chang are at a loss to explain the high rates in the Northwest.

"I'm not entirely sure why that is," Chang says.

She does, however, see generally that poverty is a driver of chronic absenteeism. Rural schools, too, tend to have more missed school days.

That can be true locally as well. For instance, Newport High School, home to about 360 students an hour north of Spokane, had more than half of its students chronically absent last school year, according to OSPI. Principal Jamie Pancho says some of that may have to do with not coding absences correctly, but he acknowledges it's an issue and says the school has taken a number of measures to improve attendance.

In Spokane, kids in middle and high school miss school more often than elementary students. So do students with disabilities, generally. And disparities exist by race in Spokane Public Schools as well: 31 percent of Native American students and 35 percent of Pacific Islander students are chronically absent, OSPI says. That's compared to just 11 percent of Asian students and 17 percent of white students.

Spokane Public Schools has made addressing chronic absenteeism a top priority for the last couple years, with Adams Elementary being an early adopter of the tools available. Adams, Parrill says, has tried to create a positive environment celebrating good attendance and building relationships with families when a kid starts to miss days.

click to enlarge Adams principal assistant Rebecca Parrill (left) and principal Beth Nye have made attendance a priority. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Adams principal assistant Rebecca Parrill (left) and principal Beth Nye have made attendance a priority.

"This is a multiyear process," Parrill says. "It takes a long time to develop habits and it takes a long time to change habits."

Scott Kerwien, director of college and career readiness for the district, says the district encourages "nudge" texts and letters reminding parents why regular attendance is important and how their students are doing. He says it's a little like an electricity bill showing your usage — if they see how they're doing, they'll be more mindful of it.

"We're trying to raise awareness, saying this is a thing that exists, and that we notice academic performance is directly tied — and graduation is tied — to attendance rates," Kerwien says.

The school district also has a "Walking School Bus" program for elementary schools. If a student lives closer than a mile to school, they don't get bus service, so parents can apply to the program and have volunteers walk them to school.

Kerwien says that some interventions may be working for individual students. There were 2,153 Spokane students chronically absent last year who are not this year, he says.

But there's no silver bullet. It's still early, but overall, chronic absence in Spokane Public Schools has stayed about the same since 2015, and increased slightly since last year. And while Adams has about 85 percent of its students regularly attending school, that number hasn't improved much since the school has been bombarded with attendance reminders.

"There aren't going to be any immediate or overnight fixes," Kerwien says.

HOPE IN GRANDVIEW

While Spokane-area schools haven't yet made a dent in attendance rates, that doesn't mean it can't be done. For inspiration, they need not look further than Grandview School District, a small district of 3,750 students located between the Tri-Cities and Yakima.

It checks all the boxes for a school district that could struggle with chronic absenteeism. It's rural and about 72 percent of its students are low-income, according to OSPI. Just four years ago, in 2016, 23.2 percent of its students were chronically absent.

Tony Torres, graduation specialist for the district, says district officials sat down as a team knowing it had to change.

"We had to do something about it," he says. "We were failing our students."

The district pushed a "strive for five" campaign — meaning five absences or fewer in a year — partnering with community organizations to place banners and posters around town. Students couldn't go a day without seeing those words. They set up support systems meant to respond to students based on the severity of their chronic absence. They developed a data dashboard to identify where that support was needed. They restructured their community truancy board. They started parent classes for parents to come to school and learn more about the behavior expected. That's not to mention the nudge letters and notifications sent to families as well.

"It was an all-hands-on-deck approach to attendance," Torres says.

And it worked. Chronic absenteeism went down to 13 percent. And the graduation rate simultaneously shot up, from 65 percent in 2015 to 85 percent in 2019. Torres says it wasn't just about improving attendance. It was changing the culture of the school.

Krissy Johnson, the program supervisor of attendance and truancy for OSPI, says that's the way schools should see it. Chronic absenteeism is an indicator that "requires us to dig deeper," she says. Attendance can point to an unsafe neighborhood, mental health issues or even the quality of classroom instruction, and schools should identify those issues and work to create a response.

Grandview isn't the only success story. Johnson says Vancouver Public Schools has also made strides in reducing chronic absenteeism.

"We're not just saying this is the responsibility of families," Johnson says. "This is the responsibility of schools."

It's yet to be seen whether similar efforts will make a dent in the chronic absenteeism rate in Spokane schools like Adams.

For now, Parrill will continue to spread the message.

"The reason why we pursue decreasing chronic absenteeism is because education is what empowers students," she says. "Students need to be at schools so they can be empowered." ♦

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"It takes a long time to develop habits and it takes a long time to change habits."

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.