Here’s another implementation problem that needs some attention. Attendance policies.

Many parents have have seen, and been worried by, letters coming home from school outlining their district’s new attendance policies.  The policies outline various “interventions” that may be used if a child misses an excessive amount of school. The term excessive now means 10% absences and interventions can begin after as few as 5% absences. The triggers and specific measures may vary a little from district to district, but the overall push is the same – 90% attendance by 90% of the students. Truancy rules are nothing new, but the new attendance measures go beyond truancy, threatening parents with potential involvement by Child Protective Services and charges of educational neglect, even if there are perfectly reasonable explanations for a child’s absence.  Parents are scratching their heads wondering WHY districts would take such drastic measures as referring a family to family court when they have an excessively sick child. The answer lies in the Missouri School Improvement Plan known more commonly as MSIP.

The latest plan, MSIP5, explains that this is “the state’s accountability system for reviewing and accrediting public school districts, [the plan] outlines the expectations for student achievement with the ultimate goal of each student graduating ready for success in college and careers. The comprehensive MSIP accountability system was established in 1990 and has evolved with each version. MSIP 5 Resource and Process Standards are designed to promote continuous improvement and innovation within each district.” emphasis added for discussion later

The plan outlines several areas in which districts may accrue points towards accreditation. Student attendance is one of those areas.  MSIP5 offers this table to calculate points attainable from student attendance.

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Note that this attendance rate is calculated per child so that a district cannot “unfairly” get credit for good attendance by the majority of students while some students have low attendance. Each student must achieve this level of attendance and maintain it.

A couple of things to note.

  1. The district loses 40% of its potential points if a child misses just one day a month. Mothers of teenage daughters, does this concern you? That figure drops to 60% point loss if the student misses just a little more than one day per month.
  2. Though the rate is concerned with sustained attendance over a five year span, any single year drop triggers interventions.
  3. The onus is now being placed on the school to get your child to attend because it is all about THEIR numbers. What you as a parent have to say about your child being absent from school is not even mentioned in the plan. Any absence is suspect.
  4. Attendance is being highlighted as a causative factor in student achievement, instead of as a correlated factor.

Elsewhere in the MSIP document DESE says that “MSIP 5 is also used to distinguish the performance of schools and districts in valid, accurate and meaningful ways so that districts in need of improvement can receive appropriate support and interventions.” While attendance at school is important to a child’s academic success the reasons for absences are quite meaningful as well and those reasons have been shut out of MSIP5.

If Johnny can’t make it to school because he doesn’t live where there is bus service and mom only has the car every other day it may be appropriate for the school to have a sit down with mom to explore other options for getting Johnny to school. But if Sally has missed a lot of school because she is very ill, what purpose does it serve to haul mom into school to “discuss Sally’s absences” when mom has been calling the school every day to report that her child is too ill to attend? This is exactly what happened to one mom in Camdenton, and it gets worse.

This woman’s child is terminally ill and has missed a lot of school as a result. That triggered the automatic scheduling of a hearing with Family Court to determine whether there are special circumstances associated with the student’s absences. Here is the letter.

camdenton attnd ltr redac

Because the letter is hard to read, here are the highlights. The school district’s new attendance policy kicked in and informed the parent that they are required to attend a conference at the Juvenile Justice Center.

The purpose of the conference is to discuss a referral received from the Camdenton Hill schools which is alleged to bring the juvenile within the jurisdiction of the Family Court, Juvenile Division. At the conference, it will be determined whether a petition will be filed in the Family Court Juvenile Division or whether an informal adjustment of the matter will be made.

Picture this – the parent has been calling this child’s absences in to school because of the terminal illness so the school is aware of what is going on. However, they are hiding behind a policy and forcing the parent to justify these absences to the court. Why hide? BECAUSE THERE ARE FIVE POINTS ON THE LINE FOR ACCREDITATION PEOPLE! The parent can no longer make the call on what is appropriate for the child. The school can no longer use its own judgement regarding absentee reporting. Now we have to bring in the courts.

And while this family is working to pay medical bills they also get the added stress of paying for this conference. “Pursuant to 488.23002 RSMo a $30 fee will be assessed on cases that come under the jurisdiction of the Court. As disposition may be made at the time of the conference you should be prepared to make a payment on that date.”

Is Camdenton an outlier? Nope. Other districts are struggling with an implementation problem with MSIP5.  The Wentzille school district has published similar attendance policies.

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Recently they added another twist to this policy, noted only in a small notice in the district newsletter to parents, but hey they have done their job of informing the parents.

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Some aspects of this policy have been in place for years.  The school nurse has always been a bit of a gatekeeper for sick children. There are some divas and hypochondriacs out there who abuse the option of going to the nurse. But in light of the previous letter, this little policy has  a whole new ominous meaning. What it says is that the school nurse is now the ultimate responsible party for determining a child’s sickness or health. The districts are, in effect, bullying parents into accepting the district’s determination regarding their child’s ability to stay in school. I hope the Wentzville district employs some really fabulous nurses, on par with Dr. House, because those nurses will be held personally responsible should they miss any serious illness that needed actual medical attention and their call delayed treatment. The district might want to check with their insurer to make sure they are able to cover any medical expenses parents might end up suing for because they “chose” to leave their child in school because they wanted to avoid an appearance before the Family Court and the child was found to be seriously ill. And then there are all the other parents whose children may end up getting sick because they went to the nurses office only to be exposed to a highly contagious child that the nurse is keeping there because she has not granted the parent the right to collect that child. The school may inadvertently increase its absenteeism because of a poorly thought out policy. Those other parents may now be justifiable angry at the school because THEY have started down the trail to interventions because of what the school nurse did.

Keep in mind the ultimate goal that DESE laid out above – each student graduating ready for success in college and careers. Reaching that goal is dependent on academic performance. Notice that nowhere in these attendance policies is academic performance even considered. This is like a close reading exercise on steroids. We are going to consider absenteeism in a vacuum, as a stand alone indicator of future academic success. Thus, the high achieving child who happens to become ill and misses two weeks of school in a semester but who is staying up with the assignments and scoring well on the tests once he returns to school is still subject to “interventions” because of the absences.  Similarly, the low achieving child who is in school every single day but who, for various other reasons, just isn’t keeping up academically, is earning the district attendance points. How is this considered  a “valid, accurate and meaningful way” to distinguish the performance of schools?

End Part I

Published on November 18, 2014

Tomorrow in Part II we’ll look at how attendance is calculated in MSIP5 and what parents could be doing in these situations and what school districts could be doing to correct their interpretation and implementation of MSIP attendance guidelines.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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