After racking up 50,000 periods of unexcused absences last year, Berkeley High students are sure to show up Wednesday evening when the school board considers adopting a policy that will automatically lower the grade of chronic absentees.
The proposal raises the stakes for students, but for the high school, attendance has always been a high stakes game. Aside from obviously wanting students in the classrooms and learning, the district’s funding from the state is tied to daily attendance, and the loses have been steep. So far this year, average daily attendance at the 2,784-student school is 90.59 percent, consistent with prior years, but low enough to cost the district $116,399 in state funding. Any day a student misses three or more classes, excused or otherwise, the district misses out on state education dollars.
The proposed policy is simple but, for a community uneasy with punitive measures, it is likely to generate real controversy. In short: Too many unexcused absences or chronic tardiness will result in automatic grade reductions.
Not surprisingly, the high school’s students are not convinced of the merits of the new approach.
“I have not spoken to a single student who supports it,” said Student Director to the Board of Education Bradley Johnson. “The administration thinks this will make things easy, but I don’t see how it will work.”
Under the proposal, five unexcused absences from a class during the 45-day report card period equals one full letter grade drop, for example from a B-minus to a C-minus. The lowest a grade can drop due to attendance is D-minus. Three late marks are the equivalent of one unexcused absence and 15 late marks also lowers the grade. A student is tardy when he is not in the classroom when the bell rings and absent if he arrives more than 20 minutes late. Appeals would be available to students, who would also have three days to offer a valid explanation.
Whatever the proposed procedure would replace is a mystery to students, teachers and administrators alike.
“Right now, whatever our policy is, it’s not understandable to everyone, said Rory Bled, vice principal and author of the new policy. She reviewed attendance policies from numerous school districts and found that most either tied attendance to grades, or, even more frequent dropped truant students from a class altogether.
School Board Director Terry Doran, who taught at Berkeley High for 30 years said the attendance policy had always been a hot issue of debate among teachers, and that while there were consequences for truant students, attendance rules were never mandatory or enforced by the entire staff.
“Tardies have always been an issue of who’s on first,” said Vice Principal Mike Hassett. “If seven administrators try to enforce it for all 3,000 students that doesn’t work. And if 150 teachers [enforce] their own tardy policies, that leads to inequity.”
Teachers have voted to back the new plan. Wyn Skeels, a history teacher, said the current policy is “not clear cut.” “You can be tardy every day right now without repercussions,” he said. “We need a plan that says ‘if you’re gone, this is what happens.’”
The current policy has resulted in inertia. Though disciplinary measures include detention and on-campus suspension, truant students rarely get anything more than a call to mom and dad.
“It’s very hard to enforce something complicated,” said Bled. “That’s why were trying to make something that’s concise.”
Students, though, think the policy doesn’t attack the root problem—teaching—and that its enforcement could actually exacerbate the school’s attendance woes.
“The blame for bad attendance is being shifted to students when the reason it’s so poor is that teaching is poor,” Student Director Johnson said. Too many teachers place more attention on homework than classwork, he said, so even high achieving students see little to gain from attending class. “If teachers cut down on homework and made classwork more relevant, we might see a change in attendance.”
Johnson also warned that students who start a semester with several tardies would just give up and stop going to class altogether. “This policy wasn’t thought through, it is going to cause a drop in attendance,” he said.
Bled doesn’t consider the plan punitive. To lose a letter grade, a student would need to be tardy for one of every three classes, she said. “That’s a pretty serious commitment to being tardy.”
Students have six minutes to get from one class to the next, enough time to traverse the campus, Bled said. Most tardies and unexcused absences are recorded in periods one and four, right after lunch.
Though the procedure might change, the creaky, sometimes unreliable method of recording attendance will remain in place. Teachers fill-in a bubble on a Scantron sheet for absent students. If the absence isn’t cleared in three days, an automatic dialer calls the student’s home.
Johnson said teachers sometimes fill in the wrong bubbles and provide incorrect data. “Before they talk about putting grades on the line, they need to get the system straight,” he said. On a recent report card he added, an unexcused absence he forgot to clear didn’t show, but a different class had him out five times when he had perfect attendance.
Bled said the school wants to put attendance online, but its technology grant has outfitted with the school with Macs, which struggle to support the school’s attendance software.
The policy also raises questions of equity. While the administration expects parents acquiesce to grade drops, Johnson fears that less connected students will bear the brunt of the new policy. “Parents don’t want grades going down; they’ll be complicit in the act,” he said. “The second a kid in AP classes gets a grade dropped, the parents will complain and they’ll bring their friends.”
Instead of punishing students, Johnson proposed using attendance data as staff development for teachers to gauge if their lessons are compelling.