Attendance Policy Proposed For Schools

College Visits, Ski Trips Would Be Illegal Absences

May 12, 1991|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

Hammond High School senior Andrea Clark scheduled two college visitsduring the county school system's spring break. But Bowdoin College,in Maine, offered a special program for prospective freshmen during school time.

Andrea took two days off from school to fly to Maine for the four-day program, which included attending classes with a Bowdoin student, going to a dance and talking to admissions and financial aid officers. She has decided to attend Bowdoin next year.

Oakland Mills High School senior Jennifer Atkins, a competitive swimmer, sometimes has three- or four-day meets scheduled during the school year. This year, the weeklong junior national competition was in Buffalo, N.Y., and did not coincide with a school vacation break.

Jennifer went to the meet, capturing three medals in relay contests. She will attend University of Maryland Baltimore County next year on academic and swimming scholarships.

But those trips, and family vacations that cause students to miss school, would become illegal under a proposed attendance policy. The proposal is the school system'sfirst attempt to set attendance rules.

Now, a school-by-school hodgepodge of informal rules exists, said Alice W. Haskins, director ofmiddle schools and chair of a committee that drafted a proposed countywide school attendance policy.

Principals have generally allowedstudents to make up work missed during college visits. Some have excused students whose parents pulled them out of school for skiing andother trips, but other principals would not excuse the absences.

Students can make up work missed during legal absences, but not during illegal absences. Those who are illegally out more than six days inone quarterly marking period fail their classes.

Representatives of the PTA Council of Howard County are expected to oppose the lack of discretionary excused absences when the proposed policy comes up for a school board hearing May 23.

Parents argue that since suspended students are allowed to make up missed work -- a state requirement -- parents who take their children on college visits or trips should not be penalized.

"If you tell the truth (about a trip), the student doesn't get to make up the work. If he gets suspended for alcohol,he gets to make up the work," said Ellen L. Rennels, a PTA Council delegate and member of the committee that drafted the policy.

School officials counter that they cannot set a policy that tacitly encourages skipping school.

Daniel L. Jett, director of high schools, did not have an estimate of the number of students who make college visits on school days.

Average attendance for students in grades 7 through 12 in county schools during the 1989-1990 school year was 93 percent, one percentage point shy of a satisfactory rating in the statewide Maryland School Performance Program.

Howard High School principal Eugene L. Streagle Jr., a member of the committee that drafted the proposed policy, said requests for college visits or family trips at his school "are done regularly. I wouldn't say it's a massive number."

This school year, for example, Streagle received approximately 100 requests to excuse absences for trips or college visits -- about 10 percent of the school's 1,100 students.

All Maryland school systems are under orders from the State Department of Education to adopt attendance policies.

Howard County school officials are also under pressure to raise attendance percentages for MSPP school ratings.

"We decided that with MSPP we should not create times for kids tobe out of school," said Haskins.

The committee's final draft allowed three days a year of legal absence for family trips and an unspecified number of legal absences for college visits. School officials eliminated both in their reviews, Haskins said.

Parents are more reluctant to admit to pulling children from school for ski trips than for college visits. Therefore, school officials do not know how widespread is the practice of children missing school for family trips.

Haskins said State Department of Education guidelines leave it up to school systems to decide whether vacations should be legal absences. If trips are permitted during the school year, MSDE recommends a maximum of five days' absence and strict procedures to keep the privilegefrom being abused.

Pat Rouch, a Hammond High School parent who served on the committee, said she was concerned about the elimination of college visits as an excused absence. Weekend visits do not give anaccurate picture, she said.

Rennels said she wasn't upset that the proposed policy was changed before it went to the school board, butfelt that committee members should have been notified earlier of thechanges.

A former schoolteacher, Rennels recalled being annoyed when parents took their children from school. But as a parent, she sees a dilemma: If the family has an opportunity for a trip that can be scheduled only during the school year, "Do I lie and say (my daughter) is sick?"

The Howard County Association of Student Councils doesnot plan to testify against the proposed policy, but Hammond's Andrea, a student government leader, sees potential problems in making college visits an illegal absence.

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