Eagle Point attendance initiative pays attention to every student, every class, every time

Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA), Jake Arnold
Eagle Point School District

As a newcomer from nearby Medford, Shasta Smith hated Eagle Point High School her freshman year.

She was defiant, angry and often tardy or absent. She was failing all her classes and said her father told her nobody expected her to graduate.

But the Eagle Point School District’s attendance initiative makes dropping out tough. Administrators say their attendance successes are founded on building relationships between staff and students, and improved attendance leads to a higher likelihood of graduating. The district has an 85 percent graduation rate – 10 percentage points higher than the state average.

Three disciplinarians track attendance as well as discipline issues at the high school. They divide responsibility alphabetically for the roughly 1,100 students. Tyson Wolfe, Joe Meerten and Rick Bender stick all four years with the same students and families, offering support and really getting to know them.

Teachers electronically log attendance reports within 10 minutes of the first bell. The disciplinarians are committed to making a personal phone call for every unexplained absence. Automatic emails and phone calls are generated for every unexcused absence.

Parents know that if their child isn’t at school, their phone will ring. More call in on their own now, trying to head off the barrage of calls.

But some resent the intrusions. Others think the family business or farm is more important than school. Some have given up on trying to control their kids. But Eagle Point staff say their goal is to hold every student and every parent accountable for attendance.

As a freshman, Shasta Smith (left) often refused to even suit up for physical education. Eagle Point School District wouldn’t let her get away with skipping class, though. As a senior, her attitude has changed, and she has become the teacher’s assistant for the class. “She’s my right hand,” said Diane Swopes (right).

Smith tried every trick in the book to intercept those calls, from racing her mom to the phone to attempting to change the contact number in student records. But she couldn’t catch them all.

The disciplinarians make about 100 calls a morning. They call home about every student, every time, even those with exemplary attendance, grades and parent involvement. Good attendance is a habit they want to instill and reinforce.

Bender, who has been a disciplinarian for 22 years, says many parents learn to appreciate the contacts.

“They see we are there to help support their kids, not get them in trouble,” Bender said.

Meerten stayed on Smith’s case, counseling her when school became overwhelming and tracking her down when she didn’t show up.

“My mom and Mr. Meerten got a tight bond going, so I couldn’t make up excuses,” she said.

Six years ago, Wolfe was doing attendance on his own, while Meerten and Bender were disciplinarians dealing with detentions and student behavior. Wolfe could only respond to the students nearing dropout territory, the “red zone” students. With more staff time now devoted to attendance, the Student Management Team spends more time with “yellow zone” students, keeping them out of the red and moving them into green territory.

The attendance initiative creates links to real life for students, reminding them that employers won’t keep workers who are always late or absent. Attendance is a constant part of the conversation among staff, and it is everyone’s job. Teachers are expected to call a student’s home if the student misses their class for three days in a row.

Good attendance results in awards such as extra time at lunch, treats or extra privileges.

The school walks its talk. Recently, Superintendent Cynda Rickert went around the school delivering gifts to teachers who had perfect attendance for the first part of the year. Students cheered as their teachers were recognized. 

Wolfe praises district support. Phil Ortega leads the districtwide attendance initiative team, which addresses medical, emotional, financial and social hurdles.

Tyson Wolfe (left) and Joe Meerten wait by the school door after lunch with hand-held electronic devices that can quickly mark a student tardy and print out a slip for the student to get in class. The devices create immediate accountability and speed up the process so the students miss less class time. (Photo by Jake Arnold) 

Bender, Meerten and Wolfe say personal attention makes the difference.

“Kids don’t care what I know until they know I care about them,” Wolfe said.

The disciplinarians staff school doors at the start of school and after lunch, and greet students by name. They carry hand-held devices that allow them to swipe ID cards of late students. The devices generate a tardy slip, preventing an office backlog that can reduce seat time.

Wolfe said Eagle Point had 3,000 fewer tardies last year after implementing the card readers.

“They made it hard for me to skip so I might as well go to class and pay attention,” Smith said. She is now a straight-A student in her senior year, on track to graduate and dreaming of becoming a nurse or working with kids. 

“I love my school,” she said. “It was really helpful to have someone say, ‘No matter how you act, I will be here for you.’ My mom and Mr. Meerten are the two people who have had the biggest influence on my life and who I am becoming.”