By Nick Grabbe, Staff Writer
Published on July 17, 2009
School Committee members expressed surprise at the number of Amherst Regional students who have excessive absences and are seeking more information about who they are and why they are out.
Principal Mark Jackson told the committee last month that 262 students - about a quarter of the school - exceeded the limit of eight absences in at least one course in the spring trimester. Theoretically, all these students could have been denied credit. Jackson said the high school is considering a change in enforcement of the policy.
"Our enforcement has been spotty," he said in an interview. "The only thing to do is enforce the policy as it's written. We'd like to be in a better place and do what we say we're going to do."
Jackson said some students who exceeded the absence limit did not receive credit, but didn't say how many. He said the school's goal should be figuring out how to help kids make good decisions.
"We haven't been good on this, and we're going to be better," he said. "My message is that they can expect us to be good to our word."
According to the policy, students are allowed eight absences in each trimester course before losing credit, with tardiness counting as one-third of an absence. Absences at the student's or family's discretion are counted, while absences the school requires, such as for testing and field trips, are not. Any student exceeding the limit can apply for an attendance waiver that can restore lost credit.
The number of students exceeding the absence limit "seems extraordinarily high," said School Committee member Catherine Sanderson. But she needs more information about who these students are and what their motivation is before she endorses a crackdown, she said.
"A lot of these students are getting A's and B's," she said. "The question becomes, what do you do with a student who is exceeding the number of absences but is clearly showing mastery of the material?"
To force students who are very bright and teaching themselves to retake a course because of absences seems "silly," Sanderson said. But if a lot of students are learning the material without going to class, that's a problem, too, she said.
It's also possible that some students who are late for class are deciding it's easier to be absent than to be registered as tardy and have to serve detention, she said. "Is the punishment for late too severe, or is the punishment for absent too lenient, and/or not enforced?"
Some might be seniors who have already been accepted at college and don't feel motivated to go to class, she said: "If the policy is not enforced, students learn that pretty quickly."
School Committee member Irv Rhodes said he was shocked at the number of students with more than eight absences.
High-achieving students who are cutting classes are saying by their absence that "this is not stringent enough for me, or it may not be appropriate for me," Rhodes said.
"Some kids treat attendance as optional," he said. "The bottom line is we need to know why these kids are doing this. If you're going to have a rule, then enforce it."
Last August, members of the Northampton School Committee expressed surprise at the number of requests for attendance waivers at the high school. Assistant Principal Bryan Lombardi said there are between 50 and 90 absences a day.
"Change is coming with me," said new Principal Nancy Athas. "We recognize there is an issue with attendance. I'm here to tell you that students need to be in school, and they need to be there every day."
Since then, there has been "a huge increase in communication with parents," said Kim Broussard, Athas' administrative assistant. Lombardi has been sending letters to the parents of students who have high levels of absences, and when report cards are sent out, memos are included on lost credit because of poor attendance and the need to come see him, she said.
Students can have up to nine absences per semester in full-credit classes, Broussard said. Near the end of each semester, students are notified they must come to the office to get an attendance waiver and a printout of their attendance to take home, she said. Parents can then provide documentation of the reasons for the absences.
The policy is enforced across the board, she said. The number of absences has declined, she said, but she was unable to provide any statistics.
At Easthampton High School, student absences are excused for illness, medical appointments, bereavement and some religious observances. Three unexcused absences, or 14 excused absences, result in referral to the School Attendance Review Board.
This board, which includes faculty members, a psychologist, and a nurse, meets at the end of the semester, said Assistant Principal Anne Beauregard. It reviews each student's situation and decides whether to impose or defer loss of credit.
Thirty-one students went before the board last year in a school with about 530 students. About half lost credit because of their attendance problem and about half regained credit, she said.
"Things happen in people's lives that you have to take into account," Beauregard said.
Nick Grabbe can be reached at email@example.com.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.