An Opinion: Oregonian Article Not Fair to Vernonia Schools

A recent five-part series of articles in The Oregonian, written by Betsy Hammond, featured the Vernonia School District in Part 3.  That particular article  has caused quite a stir around our town.  Hammond’s series, titled “Empty Desks”  looked at attendance issues through out the state of Oregon and was especially critical of the Vernonia School District  administration, staff and parents.

Although the article was somewhat of a black eye for the community, it was also somewhat inaccurate in its portrayal of the Vernonia School District (VSD) and their concern about the issue.  The article ignored key factors that have led to poor attendance and brushed aside current efforts being made by the VSD to address the issue.

The article featuring Vernonia was a main topic of discussion at the February 13 Vernonia School Board meeting, as audience member Amy Ceiloha, who, she says was unfairly quoted in the article, asked if the School District would have a response to the article.  Superintendent Ken Cox said there would not be any official response, but was happy to discuss the issue, as was Elementary School Principal Aaron Miller, School Board Chair Bill Langmaid and other School Board members, most notably, Ernie Smith.  High School Principal Nate Underwood was not in attendance.

It is obvious that the VSD is aware they have an attendance problem, even though early in the Oregonian article it was inferred that the District was oblivious to the issue.  Superintendent Cox did refer to a previous Oregonian article from two years ago which identified the VSD as the second worst district in the state, behind Banks, for absenteeism.

In response to an observed problem, the VSD has instituted a new attendance policy this year which requires staff to contact parents when students  have missed 4 days, 8 days and 12 days.  Students are considered chronically absent when they miss more than 10% of school days, and the new “call policy” seems to be having a significant impact.  Elementary Principal Miller reported that attendance in kindergarten and first grade has increased from 84% last year to 92% in the first half of this year.  Chronic absenteeism has dropped from 49% to 27%.

School Board member Smith pointed out that analyzing statistics is a tricky business and that you can manipulate them in numerous ways to reach almost any conclusion you wish. Cox noted that the exact figures the Oregonian referenced were actually not available to the School District from the state, but were  in fact numbers the Oregonian created themselves based on data they collected and collated.  As Smith and Miller pointed out, with such a small base of students, (approximately 540) one student who is not attending but on the attendance roll,  can skew the data; several can skew it significantly.

The fact that two years ago The Oregonian  pointed out Vernonia’s poor absenteeism record does make a reader wonder why the Administration and School Board didn’t do something then about the issue.  But, as the Oregonian article  fails to acknowledge,  two years ago  the Vernonia School District was deep in the process of finishing construction of the new schools campus and preparing to move from their old campus to the new one.  And they were also dealing with some big fundraising, as well as yearly operation budget  shortfalls.  In other words, they had some fairly big issues already on their agenda.

One could also easily believe that, as the Oregonian article does acknowledge, attending classes in modular classrooms did have an impact on absenteeism rates.  The flip side is that school administrators probably believed that opening a brand new campus would automatically help increase attendance.

The VSD has tried to address the needs of students and boost engagement through creative programing.  The new Sustainability curriculum is innovative and progressive and the Forestry program offers training in a regionally significant employment field.  A recent grant the District received for $250,000 will help address the lack of a shop facility and expand technical training.  These are all factors that help keep students interested in attending class.

A lifestyle factor the Oregonian article mentioned as impacting attendance, hunting, should be taken with a grain of salt.  Oregon is an extremely rural state and hunting is part of the culture everywhere except Portland.  Kids take time off from school to hunt with their families all over this state.  This should  not be used as a reason that Vernonia is behind other school districts.

In reading the comments concerning the Oregonian article at their website, I was impressed with the thoughtful commentary that readers brought forward.  One concern was bullying; kids won’t go to school if they don’t feel comfortable and safe.  This is also an issue the VSD has attempted to address in a serious manner.  Students at Vernonia Schools have received numerous professional trainings and awareness programs over the last several years, thanks in part to the great work of, and funding from, the Vernonia Prevention Coalition.  Certainly we can’t say that bullying has been eliminated from our schools, but the issue is definitely on the radar and being addressed.

Another point raised in the comments is the role of parental responsibility. In the opinion of some readers, our society has embraced the passing off of raising our children, and some parents no longer take responsibility for student achievement.

This may be the biggest factor in school attendance.  As was noted at the recent Vernonia School Board meeting, school staff can only work with and teach students if they show up.  Parents need to see the value in, and encourage their children to be in class everyday, and make sure they arrive at school ready to learn.  It needs to be a priority for both the parents and the students.  How the School District can impact a parent’s values is somewhat limited.

Following the flood in 2007 and then the economic downturn, Vernonia saw a large increase in students who were, in fact, “homeless,” with parents who had moved away to find work.  Numerous students lived with friends and “couch surfed” without a strong parental influence in their life.  This factor also had an influence on attendance figures.

The Oregonian  gives the impression throughout most of the article that the VSD is unaware  they have a problem and concludes that they aren’t really all that interested in addressing it. They only briefly touch on the progress and improvements that has been made this year, and  ignore several important factors unique to Vernonia.

While the Vernonia School District needs to continue to improve their efforts in confronting absenteeism, they were attempting to address the issue, even before The Oregonian so harshly, and somewhat unfairly,  pointed it out.  Let’s hope it remains a priority and we continue to see additional improvements.