The New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD) is considering changes to its comprehensive attendance policy to ensure students and families are aware of the importance of showing up for class.
During a meeting of the NPCSD Board of Education held on Wednesday, June 7, trustees discussed possible changes meant to help identify and raise attendance issues at key thresholds to maximize student achievement and prevent kids from falling behind. The district’s state aid is also partially tied into student attendance.
District policy currently splits absences, tardiness and early departure into two categories: Excused and unexcused. Excused absences include personal illness, illness or death in the family, impassable roads due to inclement weather, religious observance, quarantine, mandated court appearances, attendance at health clinics, previously approved college visits and work programs, and military obligations. Unexcused absences include family vacations, hunting, babysitting, haircut appointments, obtaining learner’s permits or taking road tests, or oversleeping.
Students in self-contained elementary classrooms see their attendance taken once per day. Secondary students have their attendance taken from classroom-to-classroom over the course of the day, meaning they might hypothetically miss more of one class than another.
“The policy should be supportive of students,” said Glenn LaPolt chair of the Policy Committee. “We definitely don’t want it to sound punitive if they’re sick or ill. It’s not just not being here.”
Some suggested changes appear designed to soften the policy, like replacing the word “will” with “could” in a passage about a percentage of a student’s final grade being based on classroom participation.
But elsewhere, the changes would provide a stricter set of guidelines, such as a 20-absence limit in a course — or ten for a half-year course — at the secondary level before a student may be denied credit; that figure includes both excused and unexcused absences. Families of students the district deems chronically absent or late would receive letters keeping them apprised, and as a student approaches the 20 (or ten) absence limit would be invited to an attendance hearing where all extenuating circumstances, including doctor’s notes, would be considered.
“If you get close to it, then it’s time for an attendance hearing to parents and students come in, and teachers can come in and say, ‘Why are you missing all these days?’” said superintendent Stephen Gratto. “Figure if you missed 20 days a year, you missed more than ten percent a year.”
School officials said the current policy is too vague about frequency of absences to be meaningful.
“We’ve got no limits in the current policy. So I think putting something in there is important,” said Superintendent Gratto, adding that a trend during the pandemic has spilled over into the post-pandemic classroom. “People during COVID missed a lot of school and continue to miss a lot school. Unless we address it, I think they’re going to continue to miss a lot school.”
Gratto suggested that the district consider notifying parents using the PowerSchool k-12 educational administrative software as soon as a student records five days of absences, and continue as they reach other thresholds.
LaPolt said he hoped some parents and students would take attendance more seriously, particularly those who might be missing class for extended vacations.
“Kids go on vacation for two weeks in the middle of the year and then expect teachers to get work to them and everything works out fine,” he said, noting that the attendance policy should have more teeth. “We would like to discuss some ways that people just can’t miss unlimited amounts of school for, ‘I went on vacation,’ ‘I have a job.’ We have kids in excess of 80 days being absent.”
Other proposed changes include cutting attendance incentives from seven to three. Those which remain would be two — an annual poster contest and assemblies developed with students and faculty input — geared specifically toward highlighting the importance of good and regular attendance. The other incentive that would survive is planning special events for days that historically have high absenteeism, like Monday, Fridays and the day before a vacation.
Incentives recommended for removal include the posting of attendance honor rolls, monthly perfect-attendance prize drawings and classroom acknowledgement of perfect attendance.
LaPolt asked other trustees to review the changes ahead of a likely second reading of the updated attendance policy.
The next meeting of the Board of Education is scheduled for Wednesday, June 21.