Latino Attendance Story

Understanding Oregon’s Latino education gap

Mt. Angel and Woodburn school districts may be neighbors, but they are far apart in how Latino students have rebounded during the pandemic.

ABOVE PHOTO: A student at the Woodburn School District works on an art assignment during the district’s first day of hybrid in-person learning. FILE PHOTO

All Oregon school districts are back to either fully in-person or hybrid learning, but that hasn’t solved their problem when it comes to education challenges in Oregon for students of color, specifically Latino students.

In some Oregon districts, the attendance gap between Latino students and their white classmates is growing, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education.

Pamplin Media Group analyzed 33 districts in the state and found that in all of them Latino attendance lagged behind white attendance at the start of the school year. In four districts the difference was less than a percentage point and in four districts the difference was 6 percentage points or greater.

Attendance rates reported at the start of the second quarter, in early November, again showed an attendance gap between Latino and white students in all 33 districts studied. Three districts showed no change; and in nine districts it narrowed. But the gap grew worse in 21 of those districts.

The number of districts with a small gap — less than 1 percentage point — dropped to three while those with a gap of 6 percentage points or more rose to five.

The Latino population has been hit especially hard during the COVID-19 crisis due to working essential jobs and on-going health disparities.

Latino students might have more responsibilities at home, too, several sources said, such as taking care of siblings while their parents are at work. Those students will then have less time to focus on school during remote learning or face cultural difficulties when English isn’t spoken at home.


What does ‘attendance’ actually mean?

In spring 2020, when the coronavirus hit Oregon, the state ordered schools to close, moving all students to remote learning. Schools stopped taking attendance and recorded grades only on a pass/fail basis.

This year, students are being graded but attendance is being taken in a non-traditional way.

In accordance with Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners state guidelines for education amid a pandemic, students need only log on to a remote class, then email or send a text message to their teacher once within a 24-hour period to receive credit for attending that day. The guidelines allow flexibility for students who may struggle to log into a class at the same time each day due to poor internet access or scheduling challenges.

Despite the low barriers for a student to receive attendance for the day, districts in the state are still seeing an increase in Latino and Hispanic students simply not checking in or logging on.

Families in the Woodburn School District drop off their children for the district’s first day of hybrid in-person learning. – File Photo

Rural district, big problem

Data show that Latino students attending the Mt. Angel School District in rural Marion County attended school at a lower rate than white students.

The attendance gap between Latino and white students at the district in the first quarter was 6.8 percentage points. The overall attendance rate for white students was 94.1%; for Latinos it was 87.3%.

In the second quarter, the attendance gap between Latino and white students grew to 8.5 percentage points.

Mt. Angel School District Superintendent Troy Stoops says the district is aware of the disparity and adds that getting students connected online was one of the biggest issues heading into the school year.

“You can’t force them to connect online just like you can’t force them to come into the building — it’s just as difficult to force them to log in,” Stoops said. “We also have a new issue that other districts have experience, too … we could often get some of these kids that aren’t attending regularly to log on but then not engage.”

He added, “Sometimes you can’t even confirm that they’re on the other end of the line other than their screen is logged in.”

School officials have tried to visit students and families at home during the pandemic to engage with them, but Stoops said his staff often got no response with a physical door knock.

As for Latino and Hispanic students, Stoops says increasing their attendance has been a focus for the district’s consolidated improvement plan, such as targeted interventions.

The district’s plan, crafted prior to the pandemic, includes three major goals.

The first goal is for all students — with an emphasis on protected classes and historically underserved and marginalized student groups — to meet the Northwest Education Association’s assessment growth goals and equal percentages in core content areas.

NWEA is a Portland-based nonprofit that supports students and educators around the world by creating assessment solutions that measure growth and proficiency, according to its website. The organization also provides insights to help tailor instruction.

“For 40 years, NWEA has developed Pre-K-12 assessments and professional learning offerings to help advance all students along their optimal learning paths,” the website reads. “Our tools are trusted by educators in more than 9,500 schools, districts and education agencies in 145 countries.”

As for the second goal, Stoop says the focus is for students to receive evidence-based social and emotional supports.

The third goal is to establish sample systems in the district to regularly review data that supports the district’s improvement process.

It took district staff about eight months to put the plan together. But once the COVID-19 crisis hit, Stoop recalls the district being in “survival mode” to salvage what they had planned.

“We were doing constant planning and changing plans to just get kids back in our buildings, or being able to provide instruction remotely, so being able to focus specifically on our strategic plan goals was challenging,” he said.

With the plan now in place, the next phase for the Mt. Angel School District is to evaluate each student through social and emotional assessments or find out if students need to be an English as a second language program.

Stoops says that COVID-19 has made it difficult to check-in with students.

“Assessing kids remotely through (comprehensive distance learning) did not prove to be very effective,” he said. “Having kids in our classrooms and being able to have them get access to counselors and there be services and take local assessments has been really helpful.”

The superintendent describes the district setting up highly restrictive testing enters with “lots of plastic” on walls to evaluate children in person prior to students heading back into the classroom.

Once the district is able to identify what support a student needs, staff use a multitiered intervention system to either help students with more attention in a classroom setting, receive one-on-one help from a specialist or move to a different classroom placement.

Last April, the Mt. Angel School District was put on notice by the state as a district to improve the services for students that don’t speak English as their first language, under House Bill 3499.

That bill directs the Oregon Department of Education to develop and implement a statewide education plan for English language learners who are in the K-12 education system. This is the first time the district has been put on notice by the state under the bill, which the Oregon Legislature passed in 2015.

It addresses disparities experienced by English language learners in every indicator of academic success, such as historical practices, disproportionate outcomes for the students and educational needs, according to ODE’s website.


At the state level

As part of the Oregon Department of Education’s Student Success Act, state officials are putting together a plan to improve access and opportunities for Latino, Latina, Latinx and MesoAmerican Indigenous students.

The Student Success Act, which was passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2019, is promising to devote $2 billion every two years to invest in early learning, smaller class sizes and improve access to mental health resources for kids. (See related story on the Student Success Act.)

The plan to help Latino students would include working with community-based organizations, school districts, early learning providers and higher education. (See related story, “When public schools aren’t enough.”)

“A particular effort in reaching out to community-based organizations because they have the relational trust to be able to reach the families,” said Carmen Urbina, ODE’s deputy director. “One of the key factors is to support the education of students, support the attendance of students, (and) being able to provide wraparound services to the students and families.”

When asked what the state is doing to address the attendance gap between Latino and white students, Urbina said that there can be a lot of assumptions made as to why the attendance rate is lower for Latino students, but the plan could give them insight on what Latino students need to achieve higher attendance numbers.

“Main issues that we know is the greater impact of COVID that affects their families. We have multi-generational families living in the same homes,” she explained. “Therefore, the sense of stress and spread is greater.”

Under House Bill 3499, ODE also creates professional learning communities where districts can learn from each other.

One of those communities is the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. The coalition represents more than 2,400 school administrators, managers and executives.

“They have our ELL emergent bilingual conference that happens every year, which we encourage our districts to come,” said Urbina. “COSA encourages some best practices to come and be shared.”

Gov. Kate Brown with Woodburn School District acting Superintendent Juan Larios, left, and Board Chair Anthony Medina. Brown visited Lincoln Elementary on the first day of hybrid in-person learning April 1.

Courtesy Photo: Rick Vasquez, Woodburn School District

Seeking impact locally

Mt. Angel Superintendent Troy Stoops said he’s hopeful that the funding in the bill will help students at the district.

“You can look at it in a couple of ways, is the glass half empty or half full? It’s unfortunate that we’re in that situation, but the reality is welcomed resources that can help us reach our target,” he said.

As for in-person learning, Stoops says that isn’t necessarily improving attendance for students overall.

He says it has only improved for K-2 students at the district who attend in-person learning four days out of the week but not so much for the rest of the students who attend school in-person twice per week.

“The secondary level, I don’t have any data on it, but my general understanding at this point is that we’re not seeing a whole lot of change,” Stoops said. “It’s two days — I’m sure that still has some impact on it.”

The superintendent says he gets mixed messages from parents about weighing in-person and distanced learning, whether it’s talking about health reasons to stay away from others or balancing child care and work.

“When we learn about those situations, we try to get connected with services as best we can but sometimes there’s just a lot of limits,” he said.

The limits at the district also are highlighted within their bilingual staff members.

When asked if there’s anyone at the district level that handles communication or engagement with Latino students, Stoops said, “That’s really all handled from the individual building level. We have Spanish speaking personnel and each building that take that on, so we make sure that we can communicate.”

Same county, different story

About 10 minutes away from Mt. Angel, the Woodburn School District is home to more than 4,500 Latino and Hispanic students.

Woodburn is located along Interstate 5 and is sandwiched between Portland and Salem, in the northern end of the Willamette Valley.

Despite the district having a higher Latino student enrollment, white students still have a higher attendance rate, with 658 white students enrolled in the 2020-21 school year. However, the attendance gap between Latino and white students shrank throughout the year.

The attendance gap between Latino and white students at the district in the first quarter was 2.8 percentage points. The overall attendance rate for white students was 92.1%.

In the second quarter, Latino students had a 2.4% attendance gap compared to their white counterparts, with Latino and Hispanic students attending at an overall rate of 88.2%.

This signaled an improvement for the school district in closing the gap.

When asked about closing the attendance difference between the two groups, acting Woodburn School District Superintendent Juan Larios said the district has focused on communicating with families as much as possible along with providing needed services.

“All of our families, working with our teachers, had virtual home visits where they got to understand what the school year was going to look like,” Larios said. “We worked hard at the start the year to also make sure that families had what they needed to be able to fully engage. That students had the technology, the internet service, and what they were going to be able to need to fully engage with school.”

He added that the district partnered with the local internet service provider to push for outreach and communication with families.

The Woodburn district also has a Home School program.

The district has staff members dedicated to identifying families if they become homeless and offering support and food services.

“They connect them with local organizations that help provide meals or even clothing,” explained Jenne Marquez, the executive secretary to the School Board and superintendent. “And then we realized that that is could potentially impact attendance. If a student becomes homeless or if a student is hungry — we look at all of that. We don’t just look at you know certain aspect.”

She added, “We look at all the services that we could provide for students and try to offer as much as we can or partner with our community. We’re lucky that Woodburn is a small enough community.… We’re not doing this alone.”

One-on-one support

Larios says that the district is more coordinated this year compared to last spring.

This school year, the district is taking on a more proactive response when it comes to attendance during the pandemic.

Jen Dixon, the district’s administrator for federal and special programs, shared that Woodburn High School created new attendance codes during distanced learning to track students who are missing school along with their engagement during class.

The district uses these three codes: CDL Present (for Comprehensive Distance Learning), Asynchronous, and Away from Keyboard — also known as AFK.

The first code describes a student who is in class via a video conference call, while the second code means a student is engaging in different ways. The final code, AFK, was made for students who might be shy or have something else going on at home.

“My son actually came up with it — my high schooler,” Dixon said. “So, those were the students who were maybe logging in, but for a variety of reasons, maybe the teacher was concerned that they weren’t able to fully engage in the class. So, if you’re having a conversation with a parent about a learning challenge, then you can say, ‘This is what the pattern looks like.’”

That’s also not the last of the district’s coding system.

The district also created absence codes for students missing school due to internet issues, caring for a sick relative or other “valid” reasons for missing school not covered by the district’s normal codes.

“These codes enable us to make more database decisions to look at analysis of trends and students’ attendance,” Larios said. “To be able to differentiate and make those individual plans for students and outreach to support them with further engagement.”

National outlook

Attendance Works, a national nonprofit initiative, focuses on student success and narrows equity gaps by helping school districts and their partners to reduce chronic absence — missing 10% or more of school days due to absence for any reason.

Along with working with districts across the county, the organization also provides free resources for the community to help limit absences and has expensive research related to school attendance.

“When kids don’t show up to school, it is an indication that something isn’t happening to ensure they have that equal opportunity to learn,” said Hedy Chang, the nonprofit’s executive director.

With COVID-19, Chang says it’s important for kids to have to access to connectivity, regardless of in-person, virtual or hybrid instruction.

She especially notes the importance of “positive conditions for learning,” which means that kids feel that school is place where they are both physically and emotionally healthy and safe.

“In order to improve, you actually have to unpack what’s driving kids and what their barriers are. Why are kids not showing up?” Chang said. “If you see a large group of students who aren’t showing up to school, it means that you actually have to think about programmatic and systems changes.”

According to Attendance Works, 350,000 people visit the nonprofit’s website every year.

The organization recently released a “Pathways to Engagement: A Toolkit for Covid-19 Recovery Through Attendance,” to offer a framework with tools and resources on how to forge pathways to engagement, especially for those who have lost out on significant opportunities during the pandemic.

Black, Latino and Native American students, students living in poverty, students with disabilities and English language learners have been especially affected during COVID-19.

The four-step plan recommends a district or agency to first establish a team.

A team approach ensures you have access to the insights and resources needed to design and implement meaningful pathways for engagement and attendance, according to the toolkit.

The second step is to identify and understand priority groups. This would include using quantitative data to identify those groups and understanding the assets and challenges of priority groups.

“That might be about increasing access to health care for that particular school population,” Chang said.

She added that it’s important for people to notice which groups of students or schools — based on chronic absence data — have tough challenges coming to school, whether that’s in-person or distanced learning.

Third step of crafting engagement strategies focuses on creating spring, summer and fall activities for parents and students to create a sense of belonging after more than a year into the pandemic.

The next phase in the nonprofit’s process is to reflect, learn and apply.

“Making sure that you take a moment after each time you’ve sort of implemented a strategy to reflect, learn what worked, what didn’t, and figure out how to improve for the future,” Chang said.

As for making sure students log on and stay engaged during class, Chang suggests for districts to maintain contact information for students and families, constantly look at issues of connectivity and check whether or not a student has a meaningful relationship to some adult in the school building.

“We think that being able to monitor along those different metrics actually helps you to have a more comprehensive picture of what’s happening when kids are showing up,” she said

As the pandemic continues, school districts, programs and nonprofits will have to navigate how attendance impacts Black, Indigenous and students of color. Woodburn School District officials say it’s on educators to figure out why students are not showing up or staying engaged.

“I worry sometimes when that it sounds everything in our community is trauma and need,” said Dixon said. “That’s definitely not the case. This is a strong community. We have an amazing group of families who are — they’re just phenomenal.”


Reporter Courtney Vaughn contributed to this article.