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Jeannette school board fighting high absentee rates

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Jeannette School Board president Joseph Yorio and Superintendent Dr. Matthew Hutcheson discuss the board's decision to offer students with excessive abscenses a chance to make up school time on Saturday mornings during Monday's board meeting. Kristie Linden | The Jeannette Spirit

Jeannette School Board president Joseph Yorio made it clear this week that it was the board's decision to amend and more strictly enforce the district's attendance policy — and that next year the policy will likely be tougher.

The policy was revised over the summer and the amount of days a student is permitted to be absent from school was lowered from 30 to 20 days. Yorio said the change the board instituted last month seems to be garnering more attention than limiting the number of absences per year — the new rule enables students with 20 or more days to make up “in-seat” time on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon.

Each Saturday session removes one absence from a student's record. It is not instructional time and normal classes aren't held during those hours, but students are required to accumulate work throughout the week from their teachers and then finish that work during the Saturday session.

Yorio said district administrators were being criticized by parents for these changes and he wants parents to know the decisions were made by the school board, not administrators.

High school principal Patricia Rozycki said Monday night that the attendance policy has been that if a student has any absences beyond 10 days in a given school year, the student needs to present a medical excuse.

Essentially, a student can miss up to 10 days without a medical excuse and up to 10 days with such an excuse, but once a student's total reaches 20 absences they face severe repercussions.

Some parents questioned why the specifics outlining the need for medical excuses beyond 10 absences was not explained in the student handbook given out at the beginning of the year. Yorio said there is a chance the board will lower the number of acceptable absences even further, and if those changes are made the student handbook will explain them clearly before the next school year starts.

“I can't fathom a kid missing 20 days, if you missed 20 days I would hope you've been to a doctor,” said Anita Mash, board member.

Randy Highlands, board member, said he was confused as to why parents were justifying students who missed 20 days of school. “It has a negative impact.”

Rozycki said as of Feb. 15, 3,461 days have been missed by students —and that's only counting the absences of students who have missed at least five days.

Yorio said there are other penalties the board is within its right to use and those penalties can range from fining parents of students who are excessively absent and suspended the driver's licenses of students who miss too much school. Those types of penalties are something the board is looking into for next year.

For now, students who miss 20 or more days are no longer able to participate in extracurricular activities, attend prom or graduation, and students who are not seniors may be forced to repeat a grade. There are alternatives beyond the new Saturday sessions, such as summer school.

“We're only halfway through the year and we already have so many kids over the 10 days (unexcused absences) we knew we had a problem,” Rozycki said. “We knew we needed a ‘Plan B' to the attendance policy.”

Rozycki said she based what she calls the “sanctions program” off of a system used by Greensburg Salem School District. She received a grant of $1,000 from Communities in Schools to pay for nine sanctions sessions.

“Sanctions” in Jeannette refers to the four-hour make-up sessions on Saturday mornings.

Each session a student attends will eliminate one absence in the hopes of getting all of those students affected back to the ‘magic number' of 20 absences. But Rozycki cautions parents and students that once the number is back to 20, at least 10 of those still need to be excused medically.

Once a student hits that number of 20, they will be able to walk at graduation, receive their diploma, attend prom or advance to their next grade level, provided their grades are in line.

The Saturday sessions are optional for students. If they choose not to attend and they have too many absences, they will need to make up the time in other ways in order to obtain their diplomas or move up a grade level, Rozycki said.

Students and parents can attend the “Reality Tour” at the Westmoreland County Courthouse on Feb. 26 and their attendance will eliminate an absence. More information on the event and this voluntary sanctions program is available at the high school office.

Kristie Linden is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 724-838-5154.

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