Starting next school year, students who miss class for school-sponsored activities such as sports, music and math competitions won’t be considered absent by the Oregon Department of Education. This new state policy will match the internal policy that many Oregon school districts had.

According to Carla Wade, the agency’s interim director of data, the state shifted its viewpoint on extracurricular absences after it noticed there wasn’t consistency in how districts around Oregon marked attendance for students traveling during the school day for school-sponsored events.

“We had heard that different districts were reporting attendance differently, some were counting school sponsored activities as present and some were not,” Wade wrote in an email. “We felt we needed to review the language defining the reporting so that we could provide greater clarity and improve the quality of the data being collected.”

Some local school administrators, such as Culver School District Superintendent Stefanie Garber, were excited when the Department of Education announced the change on Tuesday in as email to superintendents, principals and school district employees who worked with data.

“We all, as school districts, have been so irritated that involved kids were showing up as chronically absent,” Garber said. “We know students are more engaged when they’re connected in another way.”

Chronic absenteeism, when students miss at least 10 percent of their school days, has been an ongoing problem in Central Oregon’s schools. In the 2016-17 school year, 19.7 percent of students were chronically absent statewide, according to the Oregon Department of Education, but most Central Oregon high schools exceeded that number, with Mountain View and Redmond high schools each seeing over 30 percent of their students being marked as chronically absent.

However, Wade said her agency doesn’t expect the new policy to have a big impact on chronic absenteeism rates.

According to Jay Mathisen, Bend-La Pine Schools’ deputy superintendent, the district was not marking students missing classes for activities as absent, which “matches what the vast majority of districts have done for years.”

Mathisen said not marking students who might miss classes for a track meet or choir competition as absent helps pinpoint and get help to students who are struggling with missing class for other reasons. About 53 percent of middle and high school students in Bend-La Pine are involved in a school-sponsored extracurricular activity, he added.

“When we want to work with students who are chronically absent, it’s easier for us to identify and then understand those students’ stories and dig in and find things that work to find those students,” said Mathisen. “The data’s quite a bit muddier when you have students who wouldn’t otherwise be counted as chronically absent be counted as such.”

But Redmond School District Superintendent Mike McIntosh said he was happy that the state changed its policy, as his school district had followed “the letter of the law” and marked students involved in extracurriculars as absent when they were traveling to an event.

He also pointed out that because of Central Oregon schools’ geographical distance from other schools — Bend-La Pine’s students compete against Salem-Keizer schools, and Redmond and Crook County high schools are in the same conference as schools in Pendleton, The Dalles and Hood River — the state’s policy hit local schools harder.

“Those kids, because of our location in the state, typically have to travel a long way,” McIntosh said. “They do miss school, but on school business. Most of us felt it was unfortunate that those absences counted against them, and against the school district.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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