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Klamath school strategy links health, attendance

By SAMANTHA TIPLER
Of the Klamath Falls Herald and News

KLAMATH FALLS — In Oregon, the amount of students chronically absent is on the rise. According to Attendance Works, a national, pro-school attendance organization, 23 percent of Oregon's K-12 students were chronically absent in the 2009-10 school year.

Klamath Falls City Schools Superintendent Paul Hillyer addressed chronic absentee problems in his March district newsletter. Hillyer noted 24 percent of Klamath Falls City Schools students are chronically absent.

Chronically absent means students miss 10 percent or more school days in a year.

“A student who misses 10 percent of the school year misses about 18 days of school,” Hillyer wrote. “Worse yet, this pattern starts at the youngest grades, where 28 percent of last year's kindergartners and 23 percent of first graders were chronically absent.”

Those who graduated from Klamath Falls schools last year had an attendance rate of 93 percent, compared to a rate of 72 percent for the average dropout.

“A graduate is in school 39 more days per year than a dropout,” Hillyer wrote. “In fact, dropouts miss an average of 49 days of school per year. This means every 3.5 years, on average, dropouts miss a full year of school.”

Next year Klamath Union High School will have one more way to combat absenteeism: a school-based health center.

“The main reason students are not at school is that they are sick, or they feel sick, or there is something about their wellness that is keeping them out of school,” KU Principal Jeff Bullock told the city schools board of directors during a meeting on Monday.

The goal is to have the health center up and running in a year. It would first serve medical needs, then mental health services would be added. Perhaps in the future, dental services could be added, too, said Jennifer Little, program coordinator with Klamath County Public Health.

Public health is providing the medical side of the school based health center. It already partners with the Klamath County School District running a center at Gilchrist school.

Little said there are 65 school based health centers in 20 Oregon counties. Last year, the center provided 22,000 students health services with 65,000 visits, she said.

The health center at KU would be operating 15 hours a week with either a nurse practitioner or a physician's assistant providing medical care.

Studies have shown that having a school based health center helps increase attendance and improves academic performance.

A 2009 article, “Impact of School-Based Health Center Use on Academic Outcomes” from the Journal of Adolescent Health, documented the effect of school based health centers, or SBHCs, on ninth graders in Washington state schools.

“Results indicated a significant increase in attendance for SBHC medical users compared to nonusers,” the article said. “Grade point average increases over time were observed for mental health users compared to nonusers.”

As an example, the study found 10 percent of students who came to the health center for medical reasons were treated for respiratory illness "which may have otherwise interfered with their school attendance.

“Further, nearly one half of medical users were seen for general medical exams, which could be providing a preventative benefit in keeping youth from developing problematic medical issues,” the article continued. “Students who received assistance related to their emotional and behavioral well-being may experience improvements that are directly related to their ability to succeed academically in the classroom.”

Hillyer was familiar with Milwaukie High School, in the Portland area, where a school-based health center helped attendance rates. There, attendance improved from 87 percent in the 2007-08 school year to 93 percent in the 2011-12 school year.

“So it's really great to have this on site,” Little said of the plan for a health center at Klamath Union. “We're keeping our students healthier. We're keeping them in school, reducing absenteeism, and therefore helping kids learn and graduate on time.”

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Information from: Herald and News, http://www.heraldandnews.com

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