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Outdoor School boosts attendance


Why do Oregon’s kids miss so much school? Published reports indicate that about one-sixth of the state’s K-12 students miss at least 10 percent of the school year. Such chronic absences can depress graduation rates.

Oregon’s Quality Education Commission considers attendance rates to be a better metric of educational attainment than scores on standardized tests.

Legislators recently passed House Bill 4002, and Gov. Kate Brown is expected to sign it. The new law tasks the Oregon Department of Education and the governor’s Chief Education Office to create a plan to combat chronic absences and present it to the Legislature by December.

The search for best practices should include unconventional factors that can reduce absences. Two such factors are contact with nature and healthier school buildings.

One way to keep kids in school, it turns out, is to let them out. Until recently, evidence for the motivating value of participation in Outdoor School programs was mostly anecdotal. This year, in the first rigorous study of its kind performed in Oregon, PSU researcher Jennifer Basham and her colleagues analyzed data from 17,032 students attending 58 schools in four Portland districts and found that students participating in Outdoor School programs as sixth-graders showed a significant positive change in school attendance in seventh grade, compared with their pattern prior to the outdoor learning experience. Some groups, including African-American, Asian, and Spanish-as-first-language students, showed attendance rate improvements that outperformed their white peers.

Considering the importance of middle school attendance for high school success, Basham’s research validates what educators have long contended: hands-on outdoor learning can change lives.

Last year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 439 to establish a statewide grant program to support outdoor learning, but provided no funding. This year, Oregon voters will likely consider a ballot initiative to secure approximately $22 million in Lottery funds for outdoor education. That would allow the state to invest directly in a learning experience associated with better school attendance.

Poor ventilation and unhygienic conditions inside schools also promote absenteeism. One of the main contributors is indoor air so foul it triggers attacks of asthma. The Oregon Health Authority reports that more than 10 percent of Oregon’s eighth- and 11th-grade students suffer from asthma. This one impairment is responsible for three times more school absences than any other chronic health condition.

Deteriorating school facilities with poor ventilation and other adverse conditions, unfortunately, are common in school districts throughout Oregon. Yet the condition of school facilities has never been considered the state’s responsibility — until now.

Last year, legislators passed Senate Bill 447 and established an Office of School Facilities in the Oregon Department of Education. The new office is charged with providing matching grants to school districts that pass local school bonds. The idea is that state matching funds can help motivate voter support for school bonds in close elections, and thereby help more bond measures pass.

That theory will be tested in May, when many Oregon school districts plan to take bond measures to their voters. Sixteen districts will be eligible for state matching grants. If their bond measures all pass, $62 million in state matching grants will augment $365 million in new local investment, and tens of thousands of Oregon students will benefit from healthier, more modern schools.

One big payoff from the investment, real but hard to capture, is likely to be fewer missed days in class.

Better school buildings and more nature-focused learning experiences can support happier, healthier students. Students who stay in school. Students who graduate on time. Students who will go on to build a more prosperous Oregon.

Legislators are right to seek solutions to chronic absenteeism. Educators should look high and low for the causes, and school leaders should invest in the best remedies they find. They should think outside the box, and think about the box itself.

Getting students outdoors — and building better schools for them to come back to — are two absenteeism remedies that deserve sustained support.

Edward Wolf of Northeast Portland served on the legislative task force that designed Senate Bill 447.