Making the grade with class

Thursday, February 6, 2003

The recent outbreak of a flu-like virus kept thousands of Southeast Missouri students out of school during the past month, sending absentee rates skyrocketing and causing some parents to question the fairness of local school districts' attendance policies.

The attendance policies for Cape Girardeau, Jackson and Scott City schools vary in the number of days students are allowed to miss, but each district has stiff penalties for students who exceed the limit.

In the Cape Girardeau School District, students are permitted to miss five days per semester.

"In the elementary, a greater amount of latitude is given to teachers to determine if the attendance pattern has impacted a student so much that he or she must be retained," school superintendent Mark Bowles said.

At the junior high or high school level, Bowles said students who surpass the five-absence mark in any class risk losing class credit and may have to repeat the subject the following year.

"Students must have really good attendance in order to have gotten all they need from classes," Bowles said. "We feel students are earning credit by attending class. If they do not attend, they have failed to earn that credit."

Old enough to know

That philosophy is not shared by some students at Central High School, who say they are old enough to manage the responsibility of attending class on their own.

"As long as you're passing, you should be able to miss as many days as you want without losing credit," said Rob Davis, a junior at Central High School.

The attendance policy is more generous in the Jackson School District, where high school students are allowed to miss eight full days per semester and junior high students may miss 10 days per semester before medical documentation is required.

The district does not have an attendance policy in place for the elementary schools. Assistant superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher said when an elementary student is absent, a phone call is made to the parent or guardian to ascertain the reason for the absence unless prior notification has been given.

At Jackson High School, principal Rick McClard said students who miss more than the eight allotted days without a doctor's excuse may be subject to disciplinary actions such as detention or in-school suspension.

"Every school's different, but we have a high attendance rate anyway, so this policy works for us," McClard said.

Disciplinary action may also be taken when a student misses 10 classes in any single course in a semester. After 14 missed classes in a semester, a student may be dropped from that class.

McClard said that policy cuts down on the number of students oversleeping for their first hour class.

Grades and attendance

Diann Bradshaw, superintendent of the Scott City School District, said she agrees that good attendance goes hand in hand with high achievement and good grades.

At Scott City high school and middle school, students are allowed to miss 10 days each semester before losing credit for a class.

Bradshaw said absences exceeding the 10-day limit may be excused with a physician's note. Students receive a notification letter after missing eight days.

The school has an appeals committee made up of a principal, teacher and counselor, in place to determine whether a student will lose credit if the 10-day limit is exceeded.

Cape Girardeau School District also has an appeals process in the form of an attendance review committee which is made up of building principals and teachers. The Jackson School District does not have an appeals system, although extreme situations may be referred to the board of education office.

Bradshaw said the district does not have a policy in place for elementary students, but officials do make phone calls to parents when a student is absent without notification.

While Cape Girardeau may have the strictest attendance policy in the area, Bowles said it isn't as cut and dried.

Situations where a student must have surgery or attend a distant, out-of-town funeral for a family member may not be counted on a student's record. Students receive notification letters after missing three days, another when they reach five days, and a third letter after they exceed the limit.

Bowles said in order to safeguard a student's standing in a class, the school district encourages parents to take their children to a physician after the five days have been exceeded. A note from a parent or guardian is not sufficient.

"When a student has missed that many days, we want a medical expert to confirm that the student had to be absent," Bowles said.

Central High School senior Daniel Willingham said he doesn't mind the five-day limit, but he doesn't think a student should lose credit for being absent.

"It's not like parents will just let you miss school all the time," Willingham said.

Bowles said he realizes that some parents and students believe the policy is unfair.

"Anytime you have a policy like that, when you try to reduce earning credit to a set of expectations or guidelines, you're going to hit those situations where someone feels aggrieved or disadvantaged," Bowles said. "But for a student to not earn credit because of absences, it has to be a pretty extreme case."

Students first appeal to an attendance review committee. If the case is unresolved there, it goes before the district school board.

In the four years he has been employed with the Cape Girardeau School District, Bowles said he can only remember three appeals that came before the school board," Bowles said. "We don't just reduce everything to numbers. The committee considers the circumstances of each case."

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

TIME OUT

The number of students exceeding the limit at area public high schools for the first semester of the 2002-2003 school year.

Central High School (enrollment 1,342)

Allowed to miss: 5 days

Numbers of students who exceeded that limit:98

Average daily attendance rate for 2001/2002: 92.0 percent

Jackson High School (enrollment 1,120)

Allowed to miss:8 days

Number of students who exceeded that limit:120

Average daily attendance rate for 2001/2002: 96.5 percent

Scott City High School (enrollment 333)

Allowed to miss: 10 days

Number of students who exceeded that limit: 11

Average daily attendance rate for 2001/2002: 93.8 percent

Sources: area school districts

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