Absenteeism

As days wind down, so do some students

June 21, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun reporter

After wringing his hands over final exams last week, rising ninth-grader Miles Kraemer welcomed the down time that came this week with the last two days of school.

Instead of having to fret over math, he was able to watch three movies, including Forrest Gump for the first time, play a few hands of cards with friends and sign yearbooks while his teachers packed up classrooms, accounted for missing textbooks, and otherwise prepared to turn in their keys for the summer.

"Forrest Gump was kind of educational," Miles, 14, offered in a futile attempt to justify how he and his classmates had wiled away the time at Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown. "There were historical references. Like the scene where Forrest Gump is shown shaking hands with the president. It was fake, but you knew it was fake, and it was funny."

Miles was among the thousands of students and teachers across the Baltimore region who spent the past week or so in much the same way as generations before them - teachers tending to closing-day checklists and students already easing into the lazy days of summer.

With all the tests taken and grades determined, it hardly makes sense to start a new chapter in the textbook. But because state law dictates the length of the school year, educators, students and parents face the perennial problem of how to make the best use of those final days.

In Baltimore County, for example, the last two days of school were Monday and Tuesday. Students and parents said that such partial weeks tend to inspire a "what's the point?" attitude.

At Towson High School, some students reported being encouraged - informally - to stay home this week. At Hereford High, students who did not need to make-up any exams were told that attendance on the last day, Tuesday, was optional.

"I'm 45, and ever since I can remember it has been that way," said Miles' mother, Ellen. "They have to be there a certain amount of days. On those last couple days, they really don't do anything, but I don't think it's such a big deal."

However, Ellen Kraemer added, perhaps teachers could find more productive ways to spend those days.

For example, she said, students could do community service to help log some of the hours that are required for graduation. Or, schools could hold "career days" and invite professionals to talk to students about their jobs. Teachers also could arrange for students to hear from the kids in the next grade to give them an idea of what to expect in the fall, she said.

State law requires schools to be open at least 180 days - or a minimum of 1,080 hours for elementary and middle schools and 1,170 hours for high schools if extraordinary conditions, such as a crippling winter storm, prevent schools from opening enough days. To count, a school day must last as least three hours.

As of yesterday, only Carroll County had compiled attendance statistics for its final days, which ranged from about 87 percent of high-schoolers present to about 96 percent of elementary school children in school on the last day, June 14. On a typical school day in Carroll, about 96 percent of its students are present, according to information reported to the state Education Department.

As families get early starts to the vacation season and other summer plans such as camps, school officials have grown accustomed to seeing fewer students as the year draws to a close.

"It's not unusual for us to have lower-than-average attendance in the last couple days," said Baltimore County schools spokeswoman Kara Calder, who added that attendance rates can run as low as 75 to 80 percent in the district. Regardless of when the last day falls, "our expectation is that schools will make the absolute best of all days that students are in school," Calder said.

Math teacher Claudia Krochta, who has taught math at Hereford High School for the past year, said the final two days of school were decidedly low-key. With finals done, she said many students helped her pack her classroom essentials.

"If students weren't taking a makeup exam on Tuesday, they were probably helping a teacher. If we tried to do a field trip or a career day, teachers wouldn't have any time to clean and pack up."

But Calder said the last three days are half-days and should provide ample time for teachers to clear their classrooms.

Alex Halle, a 17-year-old rising senior at Franklin High School in Reisterstown, said watching The Truman Show, and reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air weren't her idea of the best way to pass the time.

As she nervously anticipates the start of her last year of high school, Halle said she liked Ellen Kraemer's idea to have older students share insights about what to expect in the fall.

"They could give us an inside look and helps us get our heads leveled," she said.

Of course, she added, there is another idea worthy of consideration: "Let us finish our finals and go home."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

Staff reporter Arin Gencer contributed to this article.

Read The Sun education blog at www.baltimoresun.com/classroom

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