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  1. The Education Gradebook

Schools again ponder bettering student attendance

Published Mar. 24, 2016

LAND O'LAKES — Students shouldn't be automatically banned from extracurricular activities because of unexcused absences, Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning says.

The activities, such as interscholastic sports and school clubs, often are the very things that keep them coming to school, Browning suggested. Telling them they can't participate might push them farther away, he said, rather than boosting their attendance.

And that is the district's objective. More than a third of Pasco students missed 10 or more days of classes five years ago — the days missed were worse for high schoolers — and the numbers haven't budged much since.

The problems have been worse at schools serving lower-income students. But the solutions largely have been left to individual campus administrations, as district leaders have talked about what to do but have taken few concrete steps.

Browning, who has called for improved attendance since he first ran for office in 2012, wants to act.

"We want to use (privileges) as tools to incentivize kids to come to school," Browning said. "We need to take some of the punitive things out of the policy."

His proposal to remove the mandatory consequences from the student code of conduct, however, has met with some resistance within the School Board that needs to approve it.

Board members have applauded the idea of improving attendance. Some also have cheered the notion of giving principals more flexibility in tackling absenteeism than the strict mandates set forth in past codes of conduct.

"We've been doing a lot of work with a system of supports that recognizes when a student is doing something correctly or improving their behavior, then giving them recognition," said board member Cynthia Armstrong, a former teacher. "They're finding that has more positive effect than simply always concentrating on the negative behavior."

Yet Armstrong, like many of her colleagues, harbored concerns about moving too far away from holding students responsible.

"I personally have mixed emotions," vice chairman Allen Altman said. "We don't want to do anything that would provide an excuse or incentive for a student not to attend school or complete their work."

At the same time, Altman said, instances arise where children are not to blame for their absences. Their parents might not get them to school or give them the push they need to see attending as important.

Sometimes, they have to tend to family issues, or cope with social situations, that make school much less pressing than others think it should be.

"There needs to be flexibility in the schools to provide for those special circumstances," Altman said. "There is no one size fits all that provides the flexibility that might be needed from time to time, and the strict accountability that might be needed from time to time."

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Board member Steve Luikart, a retired assistant principal, said he sees both sides. Children who skip school because they want to should face a different set of requirements than those who miss school because they have to, Luikart said.

That means the district should differentiate between excused and unexcused absences, he said, and not blur the line between the two.

"There's no incentive to come to school if they can make it up the next day," Luikart said. "I'm one of those guys who says, 'No, there's consequences for your actions.' In the real world, there are consequences to actions."

In board chairwoman Joanne Hurley's view, those outcomes should have some consistency.

Hurley repeatedly has raised questions about any attempt to mete out punishments or rewards unequally within the schools. She has argued that students should know what to expect from the district and not have to guess how an individual teacher or principal might translate a vague rule.

"There has to be some continuity coming from administration," Hurley said during a recent workshop.

She took the same position when Browning recommended allowing students to make up their assignments missed during unexcused absences — a proposal he expects to revisit in the coming months.

Deputy superintendent Ray Gadd gave the board something to think about when he talked about the importance of the role models in organized school activities that students would not have if they're forced out of those programs. He also spoke of addressing individual needs as the best way to get results.

"If you are going to treat kids fairly, then you are going to treat them differently," Gadd said. "The easy way out is to say we're just going to be consistent across the board."

His perspective caused some pause, as board members continue to seek what they consider an appropriate path toward responsibility with understanding.

"What we have been doing with attendance has not been working," Armstrong said. "If this is something that will work, I'm willing to give it a try."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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