Absenteeism plagues high school

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 3/15/00.

At the start of the school year last September, high school principal John Janotta was concerned about attendance.

Last year, 101 students in the high school missed at least 15 days of school. The school only had 457 students last year, meaning almost a quarter missed 15 days. (Absences do not include days missed for school sponsored trips.)

After a meeting with other school districts, Janotta figured that Paynesville schools had the highest percentage of K-12 students who had missed at least 15 days.

Halfway through the 1999-2000 school year, to the dismay of Janotta and teachers, attendance at the high school is slightly worse than last year.

"It concerned me last year, and we tried to focus on it and improve, but it's gone down," said Janotta. Causes of absenteeism range from illness to work to family vacations to skipping school. Janotta said the increasing absences reflects a societal change with more mobile people.

"We've got some of the same kids missing heavily, and our overall attendance is down from last year a bit," Janotta added.

While a majority of students at the high school continues to have good attendance, overall attendance for the first quarter in the high school was down from 96.0 percent in 1998-99 to 95.5 percent this year. The second quarter was down to 93.3 percent this year from 93.7 percent in 1998-99.

Through 108 school days, out of a total of 174 days, 44 students in the high school had already missed at least 15 days of school. The most days missed were 35 days, 32 days, and 30 days. "Even if you were a gifted student, if you were gone a third of the days, it's bound to hurt you academically," said Janotta.

Not all, though, can afford to miss a tenth of the school days. Fifteen percent of high school students have failed a class so far this year. "A lot of it directly relates to attendance," said Janotta. "That means they have to retake the class at a later date if it's required for graduation."

In the classroom
"I have more absenteeism now than when I first started teaching," said high school government and psychology teacher Jeff Youngs. "There's no question."

"The lack of being (in class) can never be truly made up," he explained. "They'll never have the same level of understanding than if they would have been there."

His 52-minute class might involve a teacher presentation, class discussion, group activity, and follow-up worksheet. "They will get none of that except working on the five-minute worksheet," said Youngs.

"Not only that," added Dick Butler, who teaches English at the high school, "but if you're the type of student who could contribute positively to discussion, the discussion suffers (by your absence)."

The social component of school is very important, according to Butler.. "Being in a room, sharing with others, is part of the educational experience," he said.

Youngs joked that Paynesville Area High School could soon be called PACHS, a slight alteration of the local health care system's name. Only Youngs' PACHS stands for Paynesville Area Correspondence High School.

On Friday, Youngs used a Jeopardy-style quiz competition to review material in a class. He said the activity captured his students' attention. "Even the possibility that they will be called on has value," he said.

Absenteeism affects the attitude of the whole class. Youngs called the negative feelings "infectious." And if students with poor attendance pass a class, he said, an incentive for others to attend school is eliminated.

Time spent in class to accommodate absences complicates the daily routine for other students and teachers. It detracts from the day's lesson. Butler said school-sponsored activities that remove students from class can be equally disruptive.

Youngs keeps a daily log book and files handouts and worksheets so students can get missed assignments on their own. Butler tried a similar system, but managed to keep it functioning for just 12 weeks. "In order to make the system work," he explained, "you have to put in extra time." When he got behind, he couldn't catch up.

"It's just part of the paper chase that's become so rampant in education today," Butler added.

Next week, Youngs will be doing Profile of Learning packages in two of his classes. With a strict schedule of activities and performance objectives, he called any absence during this time "an absolute nightmare." It's possible that a student could fail the Profile of Learning package if absent, but not the overall class.

Middle school
Middle school principal Deb Gillman said the majority of middle school students attend class regularly. The three grades in the middle school average about 10 absences a day out of more than 300 students.

A few students, though, miss about a day every other week. "It's a problem for a few students," she said. "We have a handful of students who don't think coming to school is important."

She agreed that time in the classroom is irreplaceable. "There are a lot of things that can't be replicated, so even if they do the homework they miss out on the sharing. That's why attendance is critical," she said.

Attendance problems in the middle school still are handled on an individual basis. The start of the process is usually a call home to the parents. Gillman said that in past years she has driven to a student's home, with the parent's permission, and brought the student to school.

Possible remedies
A greater value must be placed on a well-rounded high school education, according to Butler. "This is a place to get a basic education," he said. "This is a starting point. We're not supposed to be turning out specialists."

In lieu of an attitude change, Janotta has proposed a new policy to encourage better attendance. He wants to reward perfect and exemplary attendance with an incentive: being allowed to miss the final two days of school when final tests are given. "If we have them here every day of the year, we'd have enough ways to evaluate them without a final test," Janotta explained.

Students could elect to take a final test to raise their grade, but could not have their grade lowered if they try. "Our hope is the reward will improve student attendance," Janotta added.

According to a draft of the policy that was presented to the school board in February, perfect attendance would be defined as being present for the entire school day for the entire school year. Exemplary attendance would allow one absence per semester. (School field trips would be exempted.)

Janotta hopes to finalize the policy soon, so it can be included in the high school handbook, which will be printed later this spring.

The school board gave its approval to the policy. One concern on the policy was that it might encourage students who are genuinely sick to attend school.

Janotta admitted that could happen, but said that happens in the real world as well. He didn't think it would happen very frequently, or at least not in the amount that absences occur now.

Speaking of the real world, Janotta said school attendance is usually a question that a prospective employer will ask him when they call for a job reference. "I know they highly value people who are at work all the time," he said of employers.

Another unusual trend this year at the high school is a high number of dropouts. Ten students have quit school this year, but Janotta said all of them are back in school. Most now attend the Alternative Learning Center in Melrose.

For parents, Janotta offered this advice: "The biggest gift a parent could give their kid is to make sure they do their homework each night because then they wouldn't get behind and despair wouldn't set in." Falling behind makes future assignments more difficult and can erode a student's enthusiasm for school.

"If we can get kids to come to school, we can help them," Janotta added. "We can teach them."

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