At last Tuesday night’s Revere Public School Committee meeting Superintendent Dr. Dianne Kelly said last year RPS began discussing the need to revisit school handbooks and policy books based on the advancements that RPS has made around equity and inclusion.
In the coming months the Policy Committee is going to meet along with the Equity Subcommittee in order to start discussing some of the changes that were suggested by the equity advisory board.
One of those changes has zeroed in on RPS’s attendance policy.
“You might recall at the April meeting we shared some information about how changing the attendance policy at the Seacoast to be non punitive resulted in a number of students actually passing classes that they otherwise would have failed,” said Kelly. “I wanted to give a presentation on our thoughts about attendance policy, and give the Committee some time to think about it and reflect on it.”
RPS is mandated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to assess student attendance. Students who are absent, seven times in a six month period, are considered chronically absent by the DESE.
“That number, stated by DESE, is what drives the numbers that are currently written in our student handbooks on how many absences a student is allowed to have in each quarter or trimester,” said Kelly. “We are required, no matter what, to work with families to engage chronically absent students. Last year we suspended the attendance policy in light of COVID and our current policies on attendance vary by grade level. But generally speaking, they all say, if you’re chronically absent you automatically fail all of your classes and that’s meant to incentivize good attendance.”
Kelly said other rules are in place, such as when a student is absent regardless of whether it’s one time or five times or 20 times they cannot participate in extracurricular activities on the day of their absence.
“What we really need to rethink is the piece about automatically failing students, particularly when they have demonstrated mastery of the content in question,” said Kelly. “It doesn’t happen too often. When a student is chronically absent, they miss so much of the content of a course that they’re not able to be successful academically, but there are times when students are able to master the content. Often it happens with students who are a little more self motivated or learn a little bit differently than the traditional students and do a lot better at home than they sometimes do in a classroom environment. It’s kids who might have some social emotional complications that prevent them from engaging well in the classroom but don’t diminish their knowledge of the content or their ability to succeed.”
Kelly said it is students like those who are unfairly getting penalized by the current attendance policy.
“These students automatically fail because they were absent seven times, not eight, not six, seven,” explained Kelly. “However, our effort and our dedication to be more inclusive and generate more equity for all students we need to make sure that we don’t have policies that do actually harm. This is one that I think does.”
Kelly said data shows that it’s typically more students of color, and those who are economically disadvantaged, who run into these attendance problems.
“Another example that I’ll give is a student who might be working overnight in order to help support his or her family and struggles to get up for school in the morning and misses morning classes,” said Kelly. “Even though they are at home and grinding and can get the work done and can demonstrate this, we automatically have to fail those kids because of the way the policies are written. However, if we eliminate that policy piece of automatic failure fewer students will drop out at the high school level because they won’t be unaccredited; more students will graduate on time and it will increase our four year graduation rate; and students won’t be excluded from advanced coursework for having failed the previous course.”
Kelly admitted some of the cons is that student absences may increase.
“It’s data that we’ll have to track and monitor if we were to make this change in policy,” she said. “I would argue that if school is enticing enough and interesting enough and connected enough to students’ lives they will not want to miss school. That’s the area that we should be focusing on. Instead of saying you missed seven days you failed, we should be focusing on why you missed seven days and how we fix whatever that issue is.”
Kelly said if RPS is to embrace the idea that students’ grades should reflect what they know and not how well they perform to school structures the School Committee should consider keeping basic attendance policy but nix the seven day absence is an automatic fail policy.
“The consideration would be to keep the basic attendance policy with the reference to the Massachusetts federal law. Keep a definition of what unexcused absences are. Keep the requirements for medical documentation where they’re needed. Keep the rules about dismissals and tardiness and how they impact attendance. But just remove the rule of failure for attendance and threats of academic implications,” said Kelly.
The School Committee voted to send the proposal to the Committee of the Whole subcommittee for consideration before it comes back before the entire committee for a vote.