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Pinellas school superintendent proposes tougher attendance policy

Too cool for school?

No more, Pinellas leaders say.

After a year of complaints from teachers about lackluster student attendance, Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen is proposing a series of changes to get more kids into their seats, and get them there on time.

Miss more than half a class? You're absent. Run into car troubles? Unexcused tardy. Late three days in a row? Counted absent.

And high school students hoping to opt out of final exams will have to once again track their absences.

Those who have an A or B in the first, second and third six-week grading periods could be exempted from taking their final exams — as long as they have no more than four unexcused absences from any class.

Faced with the swine flu threat, school officials rewrote rules for 2009-10 to allow high schoolers with an A or B average to be exempt from final exams, regardless of their attendance record.

The result, teachers and students say, was a year of student freedom without consequences.

"Everyone knew that if you didn't come to school, there would be no backlash," said Sara Mineo, 17, a soon-to-be senior at Countryside High, who remembers looking around almost-empty classes.

Under Janssen's latest proposal, going before the school board on Tuesday, students could kiss some of that newfound freedom goodbye.

Among the other suggested changes:

• Any student would be counted absent if he or she is not present in class for at least half of the class period. To be counted as "present" for the day, students must be in attendance for at least one-half of the class periods during the day.

• Tardy students will not be excused if they oversleep, miss the bus, go shopping, take "pleasure trips," experience car problems, encounter heavy traffic or return home for forgotten items. Additionally, three unexcused tardies within a grading period equals an unexcused absence.

Sean O'Flannery, a social studies teacher at Lakewood High School, said he welcomes some of the changes. Requiring kids to be in class at least half the period should make a difference, he said.

"Literally," he said, "a student could walk into the last 10 minutes of class and I had to count them as present."

But O'Flannery worries the testing exemption policy doesn't go far enough. He questions whether schools should tolerate any unexcused absences for the reward of an exam exemption.

But he also believes the rewrite wouldn't go far enough to motivate students who aren't making A's and B's to get to school. He'd like the power to dock students a number of points on their final grade for shoddy attendance, regardless of their academic performance.

"The only people who are going to care about unexcused absences are the students who are seeking an exam exemption," he said.

Math teacher Julie Charney can't tell you how many times she walked into her first-period algebra class at Northeast High School last year to find only half the enrolled students in their desks.

"Absenteeism was huge! Huge!" said the 19-year teaching veteran. "The most I've seen."

The district was unable on Wednesday to provide district-wide attendance numbers for last year compared with prior years.

Charney said she appreciates Janssen's effort to clearly define what qualifies as an excused tardy and to penalize students with an unexcused absence if their tardies add up.

But she wonders what the impact might be on graduation rates should more students find themselves taking finals.

"The minute the scores go down," she said, "will they take that away?"

Under Janssen's leadership, the district has seen a steady increase in its overall graduation rate — a priority for Pinellas.

Board members are expected to discuss the changes Tuesday at 5 p.m. The policy likely will go before the board a second time on Sept. 14, said Allen Mortimer, director of planning and policy for the district.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Pinellas school superintendent proposes tougher attendance policy 07/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 22, 2010 12:15am]
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