Looking to boost a 72.9 percent high school graduation rate, the Cape Girardeau School District is beefing up its attendance policy -- putting parents on the hook for student absences.
Under the newly adopted procedures, the Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney's office will now send a warning letter to parents or guardians after a 10th unexcused student absence, according to the school district. If unexcused absences continue, the parent may be charged with violating the compulsory attendance law.
Violators could face up to 15 days in jail and a fine of $300, according to Carla Fee, the district's At-Risk coordinator.
"In some cases, unfortunately, we have parents who don't put an emphasis on education and don't enforce their children coming to school. They need to be held accountable," Fee said.
Parents have rarely been charged under the compulsory attendance law. Fee recalled one incident in the past three or four years. But the stakes are rising as the district strives to achieve a graduation rate of 90 percent by the 2013-2014 school year.
And keeping children in class is vital to reaching that goal.
About a year and a half ago, the district partnered with the United Way Education Solutions Team to examine the issues affecting Central High School graduation rates, which lag behind statewide averages. About 74 percent of all students in Missouri graduate from high school with a regular diploma in four years, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.
The financial costs for Missouri's economy are steep. Dropouts from the class of 2008 will cost Missouri almost $4.8 billion in lost wages over their lifetimes, according to an alliance study.
Administrators and the Education Solutions Team found that last year about one in four of all students in the district missed 10 days or more. At the same time the school system's daily average attendance rate was 94.3 percent, below the state average of 95.1 percent.
The educational ripple effect of all of those lost days are pronounced, Fee said.
"Kids who miss school are more likely to drop out," she said. "They develop bad habits for the workplace. They are more apt to have failing grades."
Chronic absenteeism can eventually create a disincentive to come to school. After 10 unexcused absences, a student loses their course credits, and they have to repeat the classes. That's not a motivator for a student who hates school.
So district officials say they are doing everything to keep at-risk students in the classroom and get them to graduation day. That includes everything from tutoring to a credit recovery program to career education classes. The campaign, Fee said, must begin at the elementary school level, to build successful learner behaviors.
Now the district is including the stick with the carrot in its drive to raise attendance and, ultimately, graduation rates.
Fee said the district will provide ample notice to parents as unexcused absences add up. Then Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle, a member of the graduation study committee, will issue the warnings that charges may be imminent.
Swingle, in court Thursday, could not be reached for comment.
Under the compulsory attendance law, parents are responsible for their children's behavior. The student is not legally culpable, Fee said. The administrator said the stronger district policies should motivate at-risk students who care about their parents to make it to class.
"Our goal is to work with parents and guardians to get students to school so they can be more successful," said Jim Welker, superintendent of the Cape Girardeau School District.
The campaign comes with a new slogan: "At Cape Public Schools, Every Day Counts -- Be There!"
301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO