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Letter to the Editor: Is School System Attendance Policy Unfair?

Parent has concerns about excused absences.

Letter to the Editor: Is School System Attendance Policy Unfair?

I have a concern about the attendance policy for Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) - several concerns, actually. First, some background about my family: I have two boys, both of whom are in the upper –elementary grades at a Catonsville public school. They have both received report cards for a few years now, and have always earned almost all A’s in every single subject. Each semester we get comments on their report card from teachers saying that they are a joy to teach, are at the top of their class, and that they are doing work far beyond their grade level. While I could certainly expound upon their academic gifts all day, my concern is not that their education is in any way in peril. Quite the opposite actually. 

My husband and I have long believed that as much (and sometimes even more) learning can happen outside the classroom as in the classroom. It was with that thought in mind, and with the interest our kids showed in travel that we decided to book a cruise for the whole family. Our thinking was that we would do it as close to the end of hurricane season as we could – no need to include bad weather in our list of “things that might go wrong." We decided that the week before Thanksgiving would be best since there was likely to be less going on at school and we would then have the Thanksgiving break to complete any schoolwork missed. We thought it was a great plan. Unfortunately, BCPS has other ideas about what is the appropriate way to educate my kids.

There is an attendance policy in place in Baltimore County (which has been there for some time, as far as I know), which in the past two years has reached epic levels of importance as far as our particular elementary school is concerned. Parents have been presented with this policy (including consequences for failure to follow) at every Back to School Night, have received multiple fliers at home regarding its importance, and have been subjected to a full 45-minute presentation at a monthly PTA meeting regarding a study that links high school dropout rates to elementary school attendance problems. While I do not doubt the results of said study (that those who drop out of high school, in general have issues with attendance beginning in elementary school), I do wonder if the inverse is true. Do all students who miss days in elementary school become high school dropouts? I doubt it.

Here is my real problem with this policy: it is not serving the population it intends to identify and support. My children missed exactly 5 days during the second marking period. All five were for the family vacation that we chose to take.  If any work was missed during that time it was either not included while factoring out their grades or did not affect their grades enough for them to drop below the A’s that they earned. Both children received a warning interim, which I disregarded as a scare tactic. However, when I received their report cards two weeks ago, they both received all B’s. I thought it was unusual since their grades during the semester had not dropped at all. When I read the comment section in the back, however, it was made clear that the reason for their letter grade drop was the fact that they had 5 unexcused absences (more than 10%) and that as per BCPS policy, their grades would all be lowered.

Now, I do take these elementary school grades with a grain of salt. However, my fifth grader does not. He is concerned about the “permanent record” that we have all been taught to fear. I had warned my kids this was a possibility, all the time thinking “there’s no way that they will lower my kids grades over this”. The reason their absences were unexcused is one reason: I refuse to teach my children to lie. When we made the decision to take this trip, everyone asked us if we planned to just report that our kids were *ahem* “sick” for the week. My feeling is that it is hypocritical to raise your children with the values of honesty and telling the truth and to then show through my actions that those values only apply when the truth won’t cause you problems. Several  BCPS employees have implicitly told me that simply sending in a note to excuse my children’s absences will resolve this issue. (The only two excusable absences are illness and death of a family member. I will not be lying about either of these.) It doesn’t seem to matter that the excuse is a blatant lie, that all involved are complicit in the lie, and that there is no reasonable purpose for telling that lie.

The other sound bite I have been given in regards to why this policy is being so strictly adhered to this year is the following: First, that BCPS wants to stay connected to any students who may potentially need to be referred to the home and hospital program (for students whose chronic illness prevents them from attending regular school). Secondly, they want to support students whose absences are potentially the beginning of a pattern that will lead to them becoming a high school dropout.

Well, my children have yet to be sick this year for more than a day at a time, so clearly we do not belong to the first group. Also, I know some students who have received interims (not sure about their report cards) warning them about consequences of missing school when their children are ACTUALLY home sick. Considering the BCPS policy that suggests students be fever and illness-free for 24 hours before coming back to school, what exactly would they suggest parents do? Which policy is the priority? But I digress. The second reason would certainly make sense if my children had a pattern of regularly missing school, coming in late, or leaving early. But they do not. The teachers all knew about this pre-planned vacation. Therefore, the argument that BCPS is looking out for my children’s well-being and future is also incongruous. Who, exactly, are you protecting my children from? When did the judgment of the policy-makers at Baltimore County Public Schools trump my own? Honestly, the resources that have been wasted in impressing upon me the importance of my children going to school through presentations, fliers, interims, and plain conversation would have been much better utilized on children whose families really do need the support. I do not think my kids should be immune to the policy, but with the limited resources provided to education in this county, perhaps we can put them to more effective use. A little common sense wouldn’t hurt either.

If I had just sent in a note, all would have been fine. The school would have their paperwork excusing my kids and the kids would have their earned grades on their official record. But I am trying to raise two men here. It’s not about B’s on an elementary school report card. It’s about modeling appropriate behavior for my children. I hope they will become men who I can be proud of, whose behaviors match their values, and who stand up for what they feel is right – even if it means breaking the rules.

Kate Hemmis lives in Catonsville.

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