Curbing absenteeism

| Monday, March 24, 2008

With teachers and administrators focused on every aspect of education to improve Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores, attendance is constantly being scrutinized.

That one part is so important that the state requires the student be brought before the magisterial district judge and fined if too much school is missed.

But schools are doing what they can to curb absenteeism before it gets to that point, and some even throw in small incentives.

In 2004, Southmoreland School District changed its attendance policy to make it a little less palatable to miss school for no reason.

"Before that, our policy allowed students to have 15 unexcused absences before they were required to bring in a doctor's excuse," said Wes Nicholson, high school principal. "However, in 2004 the board approved an amendment that reduced that number to eight."

After 11 unexcused absences, a notice is sent to the parents and from there the students are cited at the district judge and lose driving privileges.

"We believe there's a direct correlation between students being in school and getting instruction from the teacher and being academically successful," Nicholson said. "I think that anything schools can do to help students be in school and be successful is a good thing."

He added that generally it's the high school students who miss the most school, and out of those, it's the seniors who have the lowest attendance percentage.

In the 1998-99 school year, high school attendance was at 88 to 89 percent. Last year, the attendance was at 93.18 percent -- the best attendance record for the school in several years.

"It's been a steady process of trying to improve attendance," Nicholson said.

He attributes some of the success to the GEMS program, which was started at the junior high level a few years ago by then-principal Timothy Scott.

"With that program, any student who gets all As and Bs and no more than one C and misses no more than three days in a nine-week period gets to participate in a pizza party," Nicholson said.

The revised attendance policy also contributed to a higher attendance rate.

Connellsville Area School District is looking at bringing up its average daily attendance rate, too. Last October, the attendance policy was revised to only allow five unexcused absences, rather than the former 10, before a doctor's excuse is required.

"Attendance is a problem," said Indie Lynn, attendance coordinator with the district. "Now parents keep their kids out of school for reasons they might not have in the past.

"Another thing that comes into play at the high school is that a lot of kids work after school so they don't get home until late, and by the time they do their homework, they're exhausted and oversleep the next morning," she added. "It really is a battle."

The school also monitors when students are late.

"After students have six unexcused tardies, we can file a citation for truancy," Lynn said.

If that's not incentive enough, the district also takes away driving privileges after so many absences or tardies.

"After the sixth unexcused absence, the student gets a 10-day driving suspension," Lynn said. "After the 10th unexcused absence, there's a 30-day driving suspension, and after the 12th unexcused absence, their driving privileges are taken away for the rest of the year."

The district employs three truant officers -- one for the senior high, one for the junior highs and one for all of the elementary schools -- to try to get kids into school if they don't have an excuse for their absence.

"When students miss school, they miss teacher instruction and it's always hard to play catch-up and still keep on track with the new work," Lynn said.

She added that surprisingly elementary absences are more prevalent than they would like them to be.

"Usually it's because they're sick, but there are a lot of other issues that are beyond their control," Lynn said.

In the Mt. Pleasant Area School District, attendance for each child is reviewed every nine weeks.

"If any student ever goes over five absences where they are not medically or otherwise excused, we don't release their grades for the nine weeks and an 'N' (no credit) shows on their report card," said Terry Struble, high school principal.

The following nine weeks, if the student's attendance record has improved, the grades are released for both nine weeks, unless the poor attendance is recorded in the fourth nine weeks.

"If it happens in the last nine weeks, the student has to come to school in the summer to make up the days they missed," Struble said.

There is a 95 percent attendance record in the elementary schools and middle school. The high school rating is about 94 percent.

Once students go over their unexcused absence allowance, the district makes calls to the home when other absences occur and also sends out letters to the parents. They have a home visitor for students with chronic absences.

"Our expectation is for students to attend school, so we don't really offer incentives for good attendance," Struble said. "A student shouldn't be here just because they're getting something else out of it.

"Attendance really is essential," he added. "Everything in the classroom is valuable and if a student is not there to pick up what the teacher is adding to the instruction, there's no way to recoup that."

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