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Manchester schools back off on absence penalties

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 03. 2013 12:48AM

MANCHESTER - The district is relaxing a policy that had slapped elementary and middle school students with failing grades for racking up five unexcused absences in a semester.

Less than a year after it took the hard-line approach to absences, the Board of School Committee voted this week to maintain the grade-based attendance policy only at the high school level,

District officials proposed the change after complaints that the policy was overly punitive, particularly in the case of younger students whose parents were irresponsible in getting them to school.

The school board approved the policy without discussion at its meeting Monday, but the changes were debated last month in the Coordination Committee.

William Krantz, the principal of McLaughlin Middle School, told the committee that there are students who can't get a parent to write a note for them, because, for example, he or she cannot write English.

"That means the school has to fail them. That is another unintended consequence that is hurting the student. In some cases, those students just give up," he said.

Board member Sarah Ambrogi, Ward 1, noted that such students "become your drop-outs," according to the meeting minutes.

Jennifer Briggs, the principal of Smyth Road School, said it was inappropriate for a failing grade to appear on the report card of an elementary school student due solely to absences. "Parents do not understand that their child's grade or progress indicator may be related to the unexcused absences and not their child's growth in their schooling," Briggs said.

Other school leaders noted that dealing with the appeal process for a failing grade adds to a heavy workload at the end of the grading period.

Board members Art Beaudry, Ward 9, and John Avard, Ward 10, opposed ending the grade penalties. Avard said the policy could be tweaked for students in the lower grades, but there needed to be serious consequences for poor attendance.

"There are parents who take their children out of school to go away on vacations or to go for an extended period of time back to their home country, and think it is acceptable for their child to have missed school for days or weeks with no consequence," Avard said at the committee meeting last month.

A majority on the committee voted to follow the administration's recommendation. Avard was the only board member to object Monday when the full board approved the policy.

The change effectively means that excessive absences in grades K-8 will be dealt with the same way they were before. After the fifth unexcused absence in a semester, a parent, teacher and administrator are to draw up an "attendance plan."

High school students would still be hit with an "NG" (no grade) mark if they amass five unexcused absences; those 16 or older who are deemed "habitually truant" could be fined.

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who backed the "get tough" attendance policy when it was proposed last July, said he believed there still needed to be changes at the middle school level.

"If you don't have a policy in the middle schools and you can miss 20 days, that person when they get to high school is going to be in a precarious situation," he said.

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