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Anchorage kids skipping school face new rules under ever-shifting attendance policy

Jerzy Shedlock
Aiming to clamp down on students cutting class, the Anchorage School District has once again re-evaluated how it deals with absences. Among the changes: Students are now automatically marked as unexcused until parents provide an explanation. iStock photo

Aiming to clamp down on class-cutting students, the Anchorage School District has reworked how it deals with absences. The school board made changes to the district’s attendance policy, and if students skip out on school, the principal now automatically marks them as unexcused until parents provide an explanation for the absences.

The school district has labored over how to improve students' attendance for years. District administrators have determined that keeping kids in the classroom directly correlates with academic success, said Mike Graham, the district’s chief academic officer.

According to district data, students in the classroom reach higher levels of proficiency than their absent peers. A total of 78.2 percent of white students are making it to class at least 90 percent of the the school year, and nine-tenths of those students reach reading-proficiency standards for their grade, set by Standard Based Assessments. By contrast, only 56.3 percent of Pacific Islander students are achieving those standards, and just 64.6 percent attend class at least 90 percent of the time.

Missing 10 percent of classes amounts to 17 days out of school. 

All minorities are attending school less than white students, and fewer are meeting the reading standards -- with the exception of Asians. Some 82.2 percent of Asian students attend school 90 percent of the time or more, according to the district, which separated attendance and achievement by race to show the correlation between attendance and academic success, not to point out which group is the least proficient in reading, said spokesperson Heidi Embley.

“It’s not rocket science," Graham said.  "You do better in school if you’re there.” 

How have things changed?

There’s always been a push for improving attendance, said Mike Henry, executive director for secondary schools within the district.

Last year, the tactic for tracking attendance rates changed. During previous years, an automated recording would call parents if a student failed to make it to class. Now, an employee at the school makes the call, and the change “increased attendance significantly,” Henry said.

And for the 2013-2014 school year, the district instituted stricter rules on how it excuses absences. In all district schools, principals are charged with excusing or not excusing absences. But in the past, an absence recorded in the school's record-keeping systems automatically defaulted to excused.

“Everyone was excused until we found out, for example, that a student was cutting class,” Henry said. Now, the default is unexcused.

If a student is out for a day with the stomach flu, a parent must call or a doctor’s note needs to be provided, otherwise the absence will stay unexcused. The point of the stricter rules, administrators say, is to emphasize the importance of coming to class every day. “This year, it’s just kind of been in the public's eye on purpose, because we want everyone to know that when students are in school every day, the prediction for success goes way up,” Henry said.

Starting this school year, a student may be designated as habitually truant after five truancies -- or unexcused absences -- or 10 or more absences in a single class, excused or unexcused. A student with 15 or more missed days may be withdrawn or failed for non-attendance.

Another change is a push to get families to schedule vacations and appointments outside of school days and the school year. The district is requesting families contact their kids’ schools a few weeks prior to a trip, if the trip happens to fall within the school year. Then, a principal will work with the family and decide whether or not to excuse the days off.

The decision isn’t a rubber stamp, said Glenn Nielsen, executive director for elementary education. It’s based on the trip’s purpose, as well as its impact on the student’s education, he said.

Businesses on board; prosecuting parents

Also new this year, the school district teamed up with local businesses to reward students with perfect attendance. The rewards include a new Jeep and a trip to Disneyland.

For elementary students, perfect attendance could turn into a trip to Anaheim, Calif., where the amusement park is located. The Anchorage chapter International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW, will provide the tickets. Car dealership Lithia Chrysler Jeep Dodge, which led the prize-based initiative, plans to hand over an SUV to one high school student with perfect attendance.

Graham emphasized that the businesses approached the school district about the partnership. Lithia has expressed an interest in continuing the partnership past this school year, but the continued use of prizes to improve attendance depends upon the businesses.

The district hadn’t previously discussed incentivizing its students to attend class by using prizes or money, Graham said. “I wish we had the money,” but it would instead go toward more pressing matters, he said.

This isn’t the first time an entity outside of the district has stepped up to help improve attendance. During the 2011-12 school year, the district teamed up with the Anchorage municipal prosecutor to enforce the city’s truancy law, which had been long unenforced. But targeting parents of the youngest absentee students has resulted in few cases, administrators said. “We don’t want to go after parents in that way,” Graham said. “We want to keep kids in the classroom.”

An average of 17 missed school days

The district realized it needed to make more changes to push improved attendance after changing its data collection methods.

It used to simply look at average daily attendance. By most measures, it was reaching 90 percent attendance throughout the district most school days, but when it broke the absences down by grade, administrators were shocked to discover students at every grade level were skipping out on more than 10 percent of their prescribed class time.

Fifth graders like school the most, according to the district. Eighty-two percent of them attended school 90 percent of the time or more last school year. As students age, they skip classes more. Only 57.8 percent of 12th graders made it to class the same amount of time.

The district is using all of the initiatives to reach its Destination 2020 goal for attendance -- Destination 2020 is the district’s comprehensive, strategic plan. It wants all of its students to miss no more than 17 days, which may sound like a lot, but is actually fewer than two absences per month.

There are exceptions to the strict new rules. Students’ problems at home sometimes prevent them from attending school. But Graham, Henry and Nielsen all agreed that most of those students see school as a safe place. “School is where their friends, their mentors are … Individuals who care about them. If the school offers an inviting atmosphere, and teachers are providing engaging lessons, they’ll want to be here. Those are the required bits and pieces, and if they’re all clicking, if one starts to lag, the others will fill in,” Nielsen said.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms