Good Definition Of An 'Absence'still Is Missing

December 11, 1990|By Dianne Williams Hayes | Dianne Williams Hayes,Staff writer

The family evening gatherings for Hanukkah planned by Susan Aaronson of Crofton are not likely to interfere with school for her two children. But each year, the fourth- and seventh-graders will miss a minimum of two school days in observance of religious holidays.

County principals will be meeting Wednesday morning to make recommendations on how those absences should be addressed by the county and state.

In November, the state issued its first Maryland School Performance report card, grading each school jurisdiction on attendance, functional tests scores, high school dropout rate and elementary school promotion rate.

Anne Arundel County was graded satisfactory for elementary school attendance and fell slightly short of the state standard for satisfactory attendance on the high school level.

County school officials, however, question how the attendance figures are gathered. Students who take a day off for religious observances, for instance, are noted as absent, as are students visiting colleges or engaged in some other activity outside school.

Not every school system, they fear, uses the same criteria.

Tom Rhoades, director of management information services for county schools, said current board policy is clear: "An absence is an absence."

"When you're out of school, you're absent," Rhoades said. "It doesn't matter what the reason is. Kids can be legally absent for a variety of reasons, including representing other students at board meetings, bereavement, illness and visiting colleges. There is confusion that people think that if they are absent for a good reason it won't be counted."

However, state Board of Education spokesman Larry Chamblin said new bylaws established by the state may help to address some of the concerns.

"I think some school systems have yet to come in line with the new bylaw," Chamblin said. "It changes some definitions. Maybe not for religious holidays, but for students away on legitimate school-related activities, the state's answer is that they are not absent.

"If every county would interpret the bylaw, which went into effect on July 1, there would be little problem."

Beginning next year, each school in the county will be asked to use the state guidelines in compiling absences.

Some principals, however, wonder how the state decides what constitutes a satisfactory attendance rate.

"My concern is that the state has arbitrarily established 94 percent as satisfactory and 96 (percent) as excellent for attendance, but I am not aware of any study that tells us at what point . . . student absenteeism is negatively impacted," North County High Principal William Wentworth said.

"I absolutely agree that standards need to be set, and we all need something to aspire to, but the desired outcome has not been defined."

Aaronson, for one, said she would like to see county schools follow the lead of Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Those systems require that no school tests, athletic events or one-time programs be scheduled during religious holidays.

"In Prince George's County, the policy also means that no tests or special events are held on the evening before a Jewish holiday, since that's when it formally begins," she said. "I think other counties are ahead. In Anne Arundel County, there is no policy.

"I think the events that cause children to be absent from school for the same reasons every year should not be counted against them," she said.

"The school system would never think to have school on Christmas or Easter."

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