Kaiser Permanente Northwest has awarded more than $1 million in grants to seven local organizations, to help stem the tide of chronic absenteeism in Washington and Oregon schools that has made them among the states with the highest absenteeism rates in the nation.

The grant recipients — Educational Service District 112 in Washington and six Oregon organizations — will each receive $150,000 over a three-year period.

“Chronic absence is an important public health issue in our community,” said Ruth Williams-Brinkley, president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals of the Northwest. “Children who are chronically absent are more likely to drop out of school, and we know that the number of years a person attends school is a leading predictor of long-term health. For children in our community, long-term health is the foundation for a happy and healthy life.”

A report released in September 2017 by Johns Hopkins University and Attendance Works, using data from the U.S. Department of Education, shows that Washington and Oregon share the designation of states with among the highest chronic absence rates in the country.

Chronic absence is generally defined as missing 10 percent of the school year. In Oregon, 21 percent of schools have extreme levels (meaning 30 percent or more of their students are chronically absent), compared with the national average of 8 percent. In Washington, 28 percent have extreme levels.

According to Attendance Works, children living in poverty are two and three times more likely to be chronically absent, and students from communities of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected.

“Chronic absenteeism isn’t about ‘skipping school’ or the occasional sick day,” said Colt Gill, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the State of Oregon. “There are many root causes, like physical and behavioral health issues, institutional inequities, and housing and food insecurity. This initiative helps move the dialogue from counting days kids are absent, to understanding why and devising equitable solutions to help.”

Goals of the three-year initiative include:

  • Reducing individual, family, community and systems barriers to school attendance;
  • Improving community awareness of the importance of being at school (and knowledge about when students should attend school and when they should stay home);
  • Increasing connections to social and health services for students, teachers and school staff; and
  • Identifying policies and systems that will support consistent school attendance.

ESD 112 will convene school leaders and staff, pediatricians, and behavioral health and national experts to implement a pilot project in six elementary schools in Cowlitz and Clark counties to address chronic absenteeism.The districts eligible for the pilot, based on data minimums required by Kaiser, are: Kelso School District, Longview Public Schools, Stevenson-Carson School District, Vancouver Public Schools and Wahkiakum School District. Deb Drandoff, ESD 112 Director of Prevention and Youth Services, will be working with the five districts to identify which elementary schools will participate in the pilot program.