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Paynesville Press - June 20, 2001

New policy rewards school attendance

By Erin Aagesen

This year, during the final two days of school, the hallways of Paynesville Area High School were a little emptier than usual. There were 118 students missing.

These students earned excused absences for the final two days as a reward for their outstanding attendance during the school year.

The new attendance policy was set into effect this year to reward students who have achieved perfect or exemplary attendance by releasing them from school two days before their scheduled dismissal. Students who qualify are also excused from final tests.

To achieve this status, students can't miss more than one day per semester, or more than two days all year. Absenses due to funerals are exempted.

Greater than one third of students qualified for early dismissal this year. Out of the 417 students who attend PAHS, 144 students qualified. Twenty-six of the students who qualified opted to stay in school the final two days to take tests. Students who decide to do this can only improve their final grades with the scores on their tests.

High school principal John Janotta got the idea for the new policy from another administrator at a national principal's conference. Albany and Sartell were the first Minnesota schools to implement the policy.

A problem with attendance was the reason Janotta felt the need to take action. "We felt that over the past several years many students were gone a lot, and we wanted to do something to address that," said Janotta.

It seems to have helped. In each of the first three quarters, attendance was at 94 to 95 percent, up one percent from corresponding quarters last year. That's an extra four students attending school each day.

"I know I didn't have as many attendance problems as in the past," said math teacher Todd Theisen.

Jim Hahn, vocational education instructor, agreed. "I think it's a good policy," he said. "Let's face it. When you work at a job, you have to be there. Sometimes when you don't want to be. This helps build responsibility in students."

However, there has still been some concerns about chronic absenteeism. Students who are absent repeatedly disqualify themselves from earning the reward early, and therefore, the policy offers them little incentive to improve their attendance.

"It's a fine policy for the good students," said David Wilke, foreign language instructor, "but there is still a problem with students missing way too much class. There needs to be something done to address that."

Hahn expressed similar concerns about the policy. "It does nothing to the kid who misses 12 days per quarter," he said.

For Jen Bruntlett, a junior, qualifying for early dismissal was a goal all year. Bruntlett, who has had perfect attendance for the past two years, didn't find it difficult to do. "Attendance has never been a problem for me," she said. She makes an effort to be in school, mostly due to the fact that she feels behind if she misses. Bruntlett said she isn't often sick, either.

Mike Nistler, who just graduated, has only missed four days of school during his entire high school career. It just happened that 2.6 of those absences occurred this year because of a serious illness. Nistler had the goal of exemplary attendance, so he attempted to go to school on the third day of his illness, after missing two days already. He was forced to go home early after vomiting in the bathroom three times, thus being disqualified from early dismissal by .6 of a day.

"I think (the policy) is a good idea," Nistler said, "but there are some kinks that need to be worked out. There is no grey area and there should be a grey area. If someone is deathly ill, they should make an exception." Nistler believes the real reason this policy should be in place is to make people think twice about skipping school or scheduling unnecessary appointments during the school day.

Deb Glenz, school board member, has opposed the policy from the start. "I understand the drive to get kids in school," she said, "but I still feel that it encourages kids that are sick to go to school. Kids might be pushed to go when they know they shouldn't be there."

Glenz suggests modifying the attendance policy that was in place before this year and taking more gradual steps to improve attendance. She believes that rewards are a good way to get students to come, but feels that students get a mixed message when they are told it is important to be in school and are then rewarded by getting out early.

One of her ideas is to give students smaller rewards, like a fun activity, for each quarter's attendance, so everyone can start over every nine weeks.

According to Janotta, the only change in the policy planned for next year is the addition of a stipulation that allows students to be excused from school for specific church activities that cannot take place at any other time.

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