TAMPA — After her daughter's emergency appendectomy, Susan Prestridge called her high school with an urgent question: Would a medical crisis count against a student trying to maintain perfect attendance to skip out of semester exams?
The answer was yes.
That makes little sense to Prestridge, one of many high school parents and students to question Hillsborough's "exam exemption" rules over the years.
The district offers this deal to high school students in good standing: Come to school every day, and you can skip half of your exams. Miss only a few days, and you can exempt one or two.
In a policy review this spring, the School Board is sure to discuss calls from students and parents for greater leniency. Critics complain the rules encourage kids to come to school sick. They make no exception for students with special needs, or emergencies like a death in the family.
Prestridge's daughter, Brooke, is an honors student at Newsome High School with juvenile diabetes. She should see an endocrinologist every three months. But the high school junior has not been in a year because it's so difficult to make an appointment outside of school hours.
"She's like, 'I'm not missing school, I'm going to miss my doctor's appointment,' " Prestridge said. "To me, they shouldn't be forced to choose like that."
Prestridge has monitored her daughter's condition through her pediatrician, who has more flexible office hours. But the situation concerns School Board member Jennifer Faliero, who also sees the standards as too punitive. Earlier this year, her high school daughter got sick, but feared losing her exam exemptions. She downplayed the illness until it spiraled into a medical crisis.
"This incentive does work. It does keep kids coming to school," Faliero said. "But what happens in these situations where we have really sick kids that put themselves almost in hospital conditions because the pressure is so intense?"
Critics aren't calling for a complete overhaul, such as requiring students to take all of their exams. Instead, Faliero wants to add a perk for students with good grades. That could move Hillsborough closer to the policy in Pinellas schools, where kids with A's and B's can miss up to nine days of school and still not take some exams.
Tampa Bay's larger districts also might look to Pasco schools, which do not offer exam exemptions — and high school attendance has not suffered one bit.
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A decade ago, Hillsborough turned to exam exemptions to combat a dismal high school attendance rate, one of the worst in the state. School officials say the incentive works.
"Kids do come to school on a day when it might be a coin flip," said David Steele, a former high school teacher and principal, who is now the district's chief information and technology officer.
Students know the complex requirements by heart:
• Zero absences in every class (read: not one period missed) is worth four exam exemptions in the first semester, and three in the second.
Miss three days, exempt two exams. Miss four, exempt one.
• To qualify, students must keep up at least a C in the class. They cannot exempt both exams in a yearlong course, although special rules apply to freshmen and graduating seniors.
At Robinson High School, senior Jakob Konner gets help from his teachers in crafting a strategy for his "exam exempts." Instructors advise which semester has the harder exam. Grades can be another factor.
Consider the student who earns an A in the first nine weeks, and a C in the second. Take the exam, and the semester grade becomes a dice throw. Exempt it, and the student can rest easy with a B for the semester.
"Kids don't want to get rid of exam exempts," Konner said. "It's a pretty good policy. Only minor tweaks, and it'd be good to go."
But Ken Otero, Hillsborough's deputy superintendent, cautions that some have forgotten the original purpose as the policy has become an established part of high school culture.
"It's not a punishment for being sick, but a reward for being in school," he said. "I think that's what's gotten lost."
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The exam exemption issue comes up every year when student government leaders meet with the School Board. So district officials recently surveyed the group to learn more.
They found overwhelming support for exam exemptions. Then Anthony Satchel, a top administrator, asked a thorny followup question. How many students expected to find exam exemptions in college?
"They danced around that," he said, chuckling that students thought colleges should have similar policies but likely did not. "I thought, hmmm, well, they will have an awakening."
School Board member Candy Olson says exam exemptions uniquely prepare children for college. As students weigh course loads each semester and how best to use exam options, she hears useful lessons in time management.
She worries little about students spreading illness at school, saying parents are responsible for helping them make the right choices.
"Part of high school is about learning to live as an adult in the real world," she said. "There are days when you go into work, even if you don't feel top of the line. There are days you get up and say, 'I feel too sick for work.' "
But when Britt Stromquist, senior class president at Bloomingdale High School, woke up a few weeks ago with a fever of 101 degrees, she didn't tell her parents. They left the house first, so the decision was in her hands.
"I still went to school," Stromquist said. "Kids don't want to miss school unless they're on like bed rest, because they don't want to take exams."
Times staff writers Donna Winchester, Jeffrey S. Solochek and Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.