Emily Hicks, communications coordinator for the Salem-Keizer School District, talks about the importance of attendance with a student at Mary Eyre Elementary School on Sept. 3, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A giant stuffed eagle sporting a school t-shirt sits on top of a bookshelf in the library at Mary Eyre Elementary School.

Larger than the school’s smallest students, the bird has helped the southeast Salem elementary school boost the number of students attending class regularly. Each week, the classroom with the best attendance gets to be the eagle’s home.

“It’s been really fun,” said principal Corina Valencia-Cushman.

Eyre is among the Salem-Keizer schools that increased the number of students attending at least 90% of school last year. That’s a district and state target for attendance.

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Last year, 400 more Salem-Keizer students attended school regularly after a yearlong campaign to improve attendance. The district now has nearly three in four students attending school regularly.

Eyre now has about 82% of students attending class regularly, up from about 75% two years ago. That’s about 38 more kids showing up to learn.

Tracking student attendance is relatively new in the world of education. Previously, educators focused more on truancy – unexcused absences.

But research shows being regularly gone from school, whether excused or not, correlates with below-grade level literacy, lower graduation rates and a host of other problems.

“Teachers and school leaders were frustrated because they want test scores to go up and they want graduation rates to go up, but those things can’t happen” if kids aren’t in school, district communications director Lillian Govus said.

READ: Salem-Keizer school officials say too many kids missing too much school

Absenteeism is now among the measures districts and schools must report to the state.

Missing 10% of school, the point where educators start to worry, is just two days per month, a number that sounds small to many families.

A student who’s out of class that often will miss a full year of instruction between kindergarten and middle school.

To improve poor attendance rates, Salem-Keizer principals and administrators took a two-pronged approach. First, many schools began offering incentives and recognition for good or improved attendance.

The Eyre Eagle was one such reward. At North Salem High School, assistant principal Carlos Ruiz handed out Jolly Ranchers weekly to students with 92% or better attendance.

“He would have a line out the door,” Govus said.

The "Eyre Eagle" sits in the Mary Eyre Elementary School library on Sept. 3, 2019. The Eagle spends each week in the classroom with the best attendance (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

They also worked on public education, visiting farmer’s markets and community events to talk to families about the importance of attendance. Many district leaders and school board members sported “Every Day 24J” buttons – a reference to Salem-Keizer’s school district number.

School employees also spent more time connecting directly with families struggling with attendance. District administrators used state funds to add additional hours for office staff in many district schools. That time – as little as two hours per week – let staff make more phone calls and learn how they could help families struggling.

Rather than being punitive, Govus said the approach was based on “treating people like humans, connecting with them so they know when they’re not here, we truly do miss them.”

At Eyre, Valencia-Cushman worked with counselor Jeffrey Peitz and school outreach coordinator Priscilla Villalobos to track attendance in weekly meetings.

When they called families who were struggling, they found a range of challenges. Some didn’t have reliable transportation, so school employees helped them find other parents willing to help.

“We’ve been able to connect families sometimes that live near each other,” Valencia-Cushman said.

Villalobos also sent out Disney princess and superhero postcards to students who improved their attendance. One mother called her because her daughter was insistent she didn’t want to miss school any more after receiving a card.

Valencia-Cushman said Eyre has struggled most with students who are homeless or couchsurfing and may not have a fixed address.

“We could understand how school was not a priority if they didn’t know where they would be sleeping that night,” she said.

She said reaching out to those families is a priority this year for continuing to improve attendance.

Districtwide, 49 of Salem-Keizer’s 65 schools had more regular attenders last year. Govus said the campaign will continue this year with a similar focus on one-on-one connections to students and families.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: 503-575-1241, rachel@salemreporter.com