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Flathead High to review attendance rules

March 29, 2019 GMT

Flathead High School will review its attendance policy this spring.

The review will begin with staff committee meetings in April, followed by parent and student focus groups. A survey has been sent to families with a March 30 deadline. The goal is to submit any proposals to the school board in July.

While seeing the value of attendance, some parents believe the current policy comes to the detriment of students following an uptick of sick students reportedly going to school under the impression their grades - and futures - would be impacted. Other parents want to know how family vacations or missions that have educational value factor into the policy.

Several Flathead parents voiced these concerns during the public comment period at a school board meeting last week, describing the policy as “punitive.” Flathead department heads and teachers in art, science, social studies, math and theater spoke in support of the attendance policy.

Since November 2018, the county’s largest high school has had 20 cases of pertussis, the most of the valley’s schools, according to the Flathead City-County Health Department. Valley wide, the health department saw a spike in influenza cases in November 2018.

Parent Renae Gugler said her daughter has set her sights on attending an Ivy League college on scholarships.

“I encourage that, however, my daughter has gone to school with a 102 fever. She’s puked in my car in the parking lot right before I bring her to school because she is that afraid of the punitive measure [if] she goes over five days,” Gugler said. “I will continue to bring my child sick to school and she will continue to sit in class as she did all last month with influenza A and B, which is very rampant in Flathead High School.”

Other parents noted similar scenarios of bringing sick students stressed over grades to school. However, this poses a problem for classmates with compromised immune systems.

For one of Flathead parent April Snell’s children who has cystic fibrosis, it can be life-threatening.

“This year’s attendance policy has caused my son to be sicker than he has ever been his whole life, resulting in not one, but two, two-week hospital stays for IV antibiotics in Billings, which is very inconvenient,” Snell said.

“We have worked really, really hard to keep our son healthy and I refuse to let a ridiculously strict and unnecessary attendance policy destroy his life and our future. My children, our children deserve to go to school and be safe from illness,” she said.

Flathead Principal Michele Paine discussed the policy and how absences factor into the grade. She said that 9.6 percent of the student body experienced a grade decrease due to attendance, noting that the percentage includes students who are chronically absent, with 90.4 percent of student’s grades benefitting from the attendance points. Total enrollment stands at roughly 1,400 students.

Paine has also tracked attendance and various iterations of attendance policies and incentives back to the 2011-12 school year. Within that span of time, the attendance rate fluctuated from 93.07 percent with no policy (but a final exam incentive) - down to 90.85 percent in the 2017-18 school year when there was no policy, according to administrators. Attendance was at its highest in the first semester of this school year at 94.57 percent.

“If a student has zero to five absences in a semester, the student earns 100 percent of attendance impact points. From days six to 10, the attendance points see a reduction, to a maximum of 10 percent. ‘MM’ (major medical) and ‘AR’ (administrative review) do not count against this total. The attendance impact points are 10 percent of the semester grade,” Paine said.

In addition to major medical and administrative review, there are more than a dozen other absence definitions that are not counted against a student. Paine said circumstances such as illness, or family vacations with educational itinerary, for example, have been granted this school year.

When devising policies the school looks to consider the academics and attendance of a diverse student body.

“Our goal with attendance policy/procedures is to maximize the number of kids in classes, day in and day out,” Paine said. “We know our best instruction comes from a teacher leading a classroom. It doesn’t come from ‘make up work,’ which is often a weak substitute for good instruction. We want all our kids to get our best instruction.”

Over the years, both Flathead and Glacier high schools have tried various attendance incentives to keep students in class and participating in discussions, small groups and hands-on activities.

Flathead has a final exam incentive that exempts students from taking them in classes where they have two or fewer absences. It also includes seniors who earn 90 percent or above in a class. Students meeting the criteria may opt, however, to take final exams to improve grades.

However, attendance incentives may also factor into a student’s decision to attend school, despite illness.

Flathead parent Stacie Hill said her child has been sick six times this year.

“And guess what, she goes to school sick. And I’ll be honest that does happen because she doesn’t want to miss, she doesn’t want the deduction in her grade,” she said.

In 2009, the district made the decision to suspend the exam incentive in order to encourage sick students to stay home to reduce the spread of illness after the district experienced an increase in the number of absences attributed to flu-like symptoms, according to a Daily Inter Lake article.

In 2014, the two high schools discussed removing the incentive in favor of a different attendance incentive called “academic catch-up days,” which at one time, both schools practiced. During academic catch-up days, eligible students are not required to attend school, but can choose to. Eligible students must have grades of 70 percent or higher in all classes, no unexcused absences and a clean discipline record. Students who are not eligible must attend school. The day is designed to let students catch up on schoolwork and receive extra tutoring or additional lab time.

After about three school years, Flathead decided to discontinue the catch-up days as they didn’t seem to be effective with the students it was hoping to target with additional help, according to Paine.

Social studies department head, teacher and parent Sean O’ Donnell was one of the educators who spoke in support of the policy and administration. He said it’s a policy for which administrators have made accommodations to consider issues raised.

“The other point I’d like to make as a teacher, and every teacher in the room can attest to this, there are real issues where people are sick. We also get some really interesting reasons why kids aren’t in school. I had one kid [on] Nov. 1 told me, ‘I will not be here on Mondays because I’m skiing every Monday,’ and they called in excused every Monday. Another kid told me, ‘I’m getting a haircut. I can’t be in your class.’ Those kinds of things are what we’re trying to battle here.

“I completely understand when we’re talking about a kid who has the flu, has 101-degree fever. They shouldn’t be at school. And if that’s a medical issue then you go to Michele and you say here’s what’s going on and I can tell you if you’ve looked at our attendance records Michele’s excused them.”

In speaking about the classroom engagement piece, social studies teacher Roy Antley has used the attendance policy as a debate topic for students.

“The attendance policy at Flathead has been a moving target ever since I’ve been there for 10 years now. We’ve had a lot of different approaches. I believe this is the one that has the best hope for something that is workable, that achieves the primary goal of improving student learning and performance,” Antley said, adding that he believed that parent and student fears would be assuaged through the policy review process.?

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.