At a forum Monday, Berkeley High School students said their new principal’s proposals for dealing with truancy will harm the kids most in need of help.
“We need to come up with some service-based solutions, even before enforcement,” said Niles Xi’an Lichtenstein, student director on the Berkeley Board of Education, and a coordinator for the student group Youth Together, which sponsored the forum.
Principal Frank Lynch said the school had to put something in place by next year to impact a truancy problem that’s costing the school district nearly $1 million a year in state education dollars forfeited due to lack of attendance.
“If it’s love that will do it, wonderful. If it’s fear that will do it, wonderful, for right now,” Lynch said.
In an interview Tuesday, Lynch said the school’s budget is based largely on state funding, which is determined by the average daily attendance rate. That rate currently stands at 94 percent at Berkeley High, Lynch said.
In other words, the money the state gives the Berkeley Unified School District assumes a high school enrollment of roughly 3,000, when the school’s actual enrollment is 3,200.
Lynch said Monday the problem is that the district hires teachers, buys education materials and so forth based on the 3,200 number.
Lynch has proposed that students with nine unexcused absences in any one class be dropped from the class with an automatic “F.” After six unexcused absence, the students’ parents would be called in for a conference with the teacher, who would work to create a “plan of action” to get the student to attend class.
Lynch has said repeatedly that he is not wedded to the number of unexcused absences that trigger intervention or a failing grade, just so long as the school puts a formal system in place to guarantee consequences for students who miss class frequently.
“We’re in a position right now where we’ve got students hanging around just doing absolutely nothing,” Lynch said Tuesday. “We’ll do something. We just have to. It’s a big problem.”
But several students at the forum said a crack down on attendance of the type proposed by Lynch fails to address the root causes of the problem.
“If we’re not in school, then there is something that is missing in this education,” said Berkeley High student Eddy James.
“If you’re going to hold the students accountable for being in class, you need to hold the teacher accountable for teaching,” said student Amani Carey-Simms, who alleged that one of his math teachers spends class time simply reading from the text book.
Merle Fajans, a Berkeley High parent for six years up until this year, said both parents and teachers have complained about the quality of certain Berkeley High teachers for years to no avail.
While her kids were at Berkeley High, Fajans said, they would come home some days and explain that they had not been in class that day because there was a substitute teacher who didn’t “know what they (were) doing,” or perhaps no substitute teacher at all on a day the teacher was absent.
Fajans said some teachers were absent for more than a month of out of the 180-day school year.
In a poll of 317 Berkeley High students conducted by Youth Together earlier this month, 82 percent of those surveyed disagreed with the statement: “The proposed truancy policy addresses the root causes of why students are not in class.”
Seventy-two percent said the proposed policy would not encourage students to stay in class and improve their grades. “The root causes are going to be there still,” said student Maliah Coye Monday. “Kids are not going to go to class...making them get an ‘F.’”
At the very least, students said, the school should not crack down on attendance until it has created some sort of alternative educational program for those students who will inevitably fail numerous classes under such a system. That way, instead of just being branded as failures and then left to their own devices, the students could be directed to specialized classes where they might feel more engaged.
“Failure should never be an option,” said James. “How is failing somebody going to be for the better of their character?”
The students also proposed the creation of a Peer Advocacy Program, where a group of Berkeley High students would be trained to act as intermediaries between the administration and their peers.
The Peer Advocates could intervene with students before their absences become a discipline issue, the students suggested, showing them how to take advantage of tutoring, mentoring and health services available at the school and steering them into the “good classes” with “good teachers”.
Lynch said Tuesday that he welcomes the idea of a peer advocacy type program as one component of any new policy for dealing with truancy, just so long as he has a specific proposal to take to the school board by next month.
His own proposal, he said, calls for the creation of a School Attendance Review Team (SART), made up of students, teachers and staff. The SART would determine effective ways to intervene with frequently absent students.
Lynch has also called for hiring a full-time truancy officer to track absent students and make sure the new truancy measures are being universally enforced. Many have criticized Berkeley High in the past for failing to address inconsistencies in the way different teachers enforce attendance.