Eagle Point boosts graduation rate through attention to attendance

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

In middle school, Rosario Cervantez hated school and didn’t see any reason to go. After all, her older sister skipped school all the time.

“I thought, ‘If she’s not going, then I’m just not going to go,’” said Rosario, who is five years younger.

Rosario’s attitude changed as she watched Eagle Point School District administrators fight to keep her older sister in school. Rosario, 16, is a junior now and happy to be in class.

Eagle Point had a chronic absentee rate hovering around 21 percent before it started an attendance initiative four years ago, according to district data. For the past three years, the district’s chronic rate has been around 14 percent, far below the state average of nearly 20 percent for 2016-17.

Administrators say there is a direct link between their focus on a culture of showing up and their graduation rate. Eagle Point High’s graduation rate climbed nearly 12 percentage points in two years to 85 percent for 2015-16. The state graduation rate was 75 percent.

“The district serves as a model of best practices,” said Colt Gill, the state’s acting deputy superintendent of public instruction. The Oregon Department of Education is working with Eagle Point on developing a statewide plan to curb chronic absenteeism.

“We know if kids don’t attend, there is more likelihood of them falling off the radar, getting further behind and not being able to pass and graduate,” said Superintendent Cynda Rickert.

Attendance challenges

Eagle Point is a sprawling district just north of Medford, with more than half its students economically disadvantaged. A quarter of its students change schools each year. District leaders, seeing bad habits starting as early as kindergarten, decided it was crucial to create a culture of attendance.

“Showing up is the first step in getting that graduation rate to increase,” said Nita Lundberg, Eagle Point School Board chair.

Eagle Point School District has committed staff time and resources to improving attendance. “None of the education process is there without attendance,” said Phil Ortega, Eagle Point attendance and student services supervisor. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA) 

Staff at each school track attendance daily and contact parents by 9:30 a.m. every time a student has an unexcused absence. Partly, that is a safety issue, letting parents know if a child isn’t in school. It’s also a chance to impress on parents how important attendance is. Chronic absenteeism is linked to low reading performance, discipline issues and dropping out, according to ODE. Even missing a few days a year can be correlated with lower academic performance.

Eagle Point uses Attention2Attendance to help staff with the increased attendance focus. The cloud-based management software, a product of School Innovations & Achievement, works with district information systems to offer analytics and automated reporting. A2A costs Eagle Point $24,000 a year. State payments to districts are based on enrollment, so the program pays for itself if it helps keep three students a year enrolled.

Phil Ortega, Eagle Point attendance and student services supervisor, said 31 students dropped out last year. Ten years ago, it was 129 students.

Eagle Point sends raw attendance data to A2A, which sends back actionable data in easy-to-use formats. Administrators look for patterns with schools, days of the week and individual students. Understanding the data helps administrators, teachers and counselors reach students before problems become chronic.

A2A also stepped up the schools’ contacts with parents, sending out automated emails, letters and phone calls. Letters are sent home when a student misses 4, 7, 10 and 14 days. Ortega estimated that front office staff before A2A could manage about 520 letters a year. A2A sent out more than 5,900 letters last year.

The letters inform parents, showing the connections between attendance and success. The letters also let parents know that under Oregon law, children younger than 18 who haven’t graduated must attend 92 percent of school days. Parents can be cited and fined $180 per day if their child is not in school, starting on the 15th day of absence. The district will request a student’s driver’s license be suspended if the student isn’t in school.

“We need to make it harder for kids to drop out,” Ortega says.

The personal touch

The district has committed to meeting in person with parents and students once a student misses 14 days. Four years ago, high school staff had more than 300 meetings with parents of students who had missed 14 days. As students and families get the message, the number has gone down. Last year it was about 100 meetings. With fewer meetings, staff are looking at being more proactive and meeting with students at 10 days absent.

Staff use the meetings to build relationships and connect with the family. They learn what hurdles the family is facing, such as transportation or medical issues, and they offer help, such as changing students’ schedules or creating connections with social services.

“We learn about our kids,” Ortega said. “A2A does the backend stuff so we can do the face-to-face stuff.”

Rosario’s mom, Maria Cervantez, said she wasn’t too happy about the school calling her.

Maria Cervantez runs her own business, and her husband is usually gone during the week with work. It’s hard to get her four children to school. She said she was at wit’s end with Rosario’s older sister, Sara. Sometimes Sara would just walk away from campus. Other times she would refuse to go to school.

But Ortega was there to help.

“He was nosy, always in our business,” said Rosario, with an affectionate laugh.

Ortega slowly won the family over. He suggested ways to get Sara more involved, and methods for her mom to keep tabs on her. Ultimately he found a boot camp program in Bend to help Sara. She made up missing credits and graduated with a full diploma.

Maria Cervantez (left) has struggled to get her children to stay in school, but with Eagle Point School District’s help, Rosario (right) is an engaged student who is missing a lot less class time. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA) 

“I was really emotional when my sister graduated,” Rosario said.

Ortega never let up with the family, getting Rosario into a summer program after her freshman year. She started working with younger kids, which has led her to consider becoming a teacher when she graduates.

“I do have goals,” Rosario said. “If I miss school, I’m not going to reach them.”