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Schools Get Tough on Attendance

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Cracking down on truancy is a growing concern for many administrators, as requirements increase and evidence mounts that children who are in school consistently learn more than students who are absent. Education World talked with administrators in several districts who use everything from fines to rewards to keep kids in school. Included: Descriptions of attendance policies in four school systems.

Stricter attendance policies -- with consequences for truancy ranging from lower grade point averages to fines and jail time for parents -- are paying off in several school districts Education World contacted.

Policy changes in the districts Education World researched were prompted by declining daily attendance and the belief by administrators that the more time students are in school, the better chance they have of improving academically. And with annual assessments coming up, teachers need as much time as possible to prepare their students.

"We feel student achievement is at a higher rate when students are in school regularly," said Beth Shields, deputy superintendent for instruction in the School District of Hillsborough County, Florida. "Students who miss a lot of school get into trouble and can have serious social problems."

PAYING THE PRICE

William Collins, principal of Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck, Connecticut, also saw the connection between attendance and performance and wanted to do more to get students in school. Now the town will be able to hit truant students and their parents in their pocketbooks.

The town's governing body passed a law February 5 that allows police officers to issue fines of $25 a day to any students who are chronically truant, to their parents, or to both. The law became effective February 26. Officers also can issue tickets to students if they see them on the streets during the school day.

The fines are a last step if parents fail to respond to calls and letters from the district's attendance officer, Collins told Education World.

Collins, who became the high school principal in August, hired an attendance officer after he noticed that some students had missed as many as ten days of school by mid-October. The daily attendance rate for the school, which has 1,600 students, is about 90 percent.

Now the attendance officer reviews attendance figures every day and calls and sends a letter to the parents of any student with four unexcused absences in a month. At the high school, administrators meet with the truant students and refer them to the student assistance team.

Parents are told to contact the school within five days of receiving the letter; if they don't, that could lead to fines, a referral to court, or both, Collins said.

"We have some parents who allow their kids to stay home excessively," he said.

Collins said he also has proof that attendance makes a difference; when the first quarter grades came out, he noted that 90 percent of the students who had been truant frequently were failing at least one course.

"Some kids don't understand how quickly the days add up," he said. "And some just don't buy into school."

To help all students feel more comfortable at school, Naugatuck High is starting a program for all freshmen beginning next year. The students will be in a separate area of the building and assigned to one group of teachers. "It will be a very structured program," Collins said. "It is to help them build relationships with teachers, other adults, and other students."

Attendance Leaps!

A get-tough policy on truants in Hillsborough County, Florida, has resulted in higher rates of student attendance.

Level 1997-98 2001
Middle School 88.6% 93.5%
High School 88.7% 92.6%
Overall 92% 94%

NO MORE EXCUSES

Hillsborough County revised its policy in the 1997-1998 school year, and has noticed a difference. Daily attendance in the 170,000-student district went from 92 percent in 1997-1998 to 94 percent by October 2001, according to Shields. The biggest increases were seen in the middle and high schools; middle school attendance rates went from 88.6 percent in 1997-98 to 93.5 percent in October 2001. For the high schools, the figures went from 88.7 percent to 92.6 percent.

Persistence by staff helps make the policy successful. "We call parents every day if we don't hear from them [to say their child is absent]," said Ken Gaughan, supervisor of school social work services for the county. "The first time, we try to understand what we are dealing with."

Under the old policy, students who were absent 15 days in a semester would fail, said Shields, but some students had valid excuses for missing school.

Now middle and high school students get points added to their average if they have four or fewer excused absences in a nine-week period. Those with unexcused absences get zeros for any tests that day, and lose two points off their class average.

District officials have gone as far as taking parents of delinquent students to court, and some parents have received jail time. In 2000-2001, 37 parents were taken to court, compared with 42 the prior year, said Gaughan. "It's not something we relish," he added. "But sometimes, we've exhausted every avenue."

Most of the truancy cases involve elementary school students, according to Gaughan, and in those cases, school staff try to work with the family. "We don't see [truancy] as an isolated issue," he said. "We try to evaluate the family and see if we can help."

CRACKING DOWN IN THE HEARTLAND

The Minneapolis school district also has turned to a multi-pronged approach to curb truancy. Its new policy was launched in September 2001, after a year of planning and holding community meetings.

"Parents have been thanking us for making the policy clear and standardizing it," Jacqueline Turner, the school's director of public relations, told Education World. "Before, the policy varied from school to school. Kids were saying, 'Why come to school if there are no consequences for not coming?'"

Prior to the new policy, the district never specified the number of absences a student was allowed, nor did it define an excused absence.

Secondary students with four or more unexcused absences from a class per semester now risk failing the class. However, before students are marked failing, school officials must show that they have

  • held discussions with the student after the first and subsequent unexcused absences,
  • had personal contact with a parent or guardian,
  • developed an improvement plan with time for the student to implement it, and
  • referred the student for interventions within the school.

In the case of elementary students, they are given the chance to make up missed work, and school officials work with families to help improve attendance.

District results so far are positive. In January 2001, only 56 percent of the district's 50,000 students made the district goal of attending school 95 percent of the time. As of the first quarter of this school year, the figure had improved to 62 percent.

"People are paying more attention to attendance," said Merle Belle-Gonzales, the district's attendance office director. "At least everyone is aware of what the policy is and can make wise choices and learn the benefits of attending school."

Middle and high school students who miss three or more class periods or school days in a semester must appear before a school attendance review board, which includes school staff, community members, and local agency members. Students have to explain to the board how they plan to improve their attendance.

Paul McMahon, the principal of Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, said his school had tightened its attendance policy prior to the district-wide initiative. Although McMahon describes the policy as very labor-intensive, he said it is worth it. "When we made the policy clear, offered support, and had consequences, it made a difference," he told Education World. "We've been seeing more students on track to graduate and more enrolled in higher-level courses."

"Students have someone else out there who cares if they are in school," said Winter.

RURAL SCHOOLS TAKE STEPS

Knox County (Kentucky) school district officials also were not happy with attendance figures in their rural school district a few years ago, particularly at the high school level. "We felt like we had to tighten up," Robin Smith, the director of pupil personnel services, said.

So officials did, starting last school year, and with quick results. In the first year, attendance at one high school improved by 5 percent, Smith said.

Before the new policy was adopted, administrators did not take action until a student had nine unexcused absences. At that point, the principal would contact the director of pupil personnel services and court proceedings could begin.

Under the new policy, teachers notify principals after a student's third unexcused absence. If students continue to be absent, parents are notified by the fifth unexcused absence. When the number reaches six, the principal notifies Smith, who sends a notice to parents. At that point, the student and family have 24 hours to contact them and explain how they are going to correct the situation, or face court action.

At the elementary level, action usually is taken before the third absence; staff at many of the schools call parents every day a child is absent without an excuse.

"Finally, we are getting the message out to parents," Smith said.

The district also has attendance incentives for students, such as school dances and passes to athletic events for high school students and treats for elementary school students.

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