EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 9, 2013

Quarter of students "chronically absent"

By Douglas Moser

---- — METHUEN — A quarter of high school students last year were considered chronically absent from school, a rate that spiked to more than 40 percent among seniors, according to School Department documents.

Over the course of the entire year, students missed an average of nearly three weeks of school, causing the overall attendance rate last year to dip several percentage points below recent years’ rates, according to state data and Methuen school documents.

Absenteeism led to the high school focusing this year on keeping the kids in school, including potentially denying students school credit if they fail to show up for class.

High school Principal James Guica told the School Committee last week that bringing up the attendance rate is a central component of his administration’s plan to improve MCAS scores and graduation rates.

“The attendance rate goes hand-in-hand with performance,” he said last week.

Giuca did not respond to a request for an interview yesterday.

Methuen High School’s attendance rate hovered around 94 percent during the last decade, and stayed close to the state average, according to records from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Last year, however, the attendance rate dropped to 91.7 percent, according to the high school’s school improvement plan.

That plan, which is available at the School Department’s website, said that students were absent an average of 14.1 days per school year. The state average last year was 8.7 days, according to state data.

Absenteeism is a larger problem among seniors last year, when 41.6 percent of 12th graders were considered chronically absent, according to the high school. Additionally, 32.6 percent of all Hispanic students were considered chronically absent last year.

Nearly 30 percent of Methuen’s student body was Hispanic last year, according to state data.

The high school’s goal this year is to increase the attendance rate by 3 to 4 percent, and decrease the proportion of chronically absent students by 7 to 10 percent.

One way the high school hopes to do that is a credit denial plan, where students who miss too much school would risk losing school credit, Giuca said. Credit could be regained in night classes or summer school.

The school placed a limit on the amount of allowable absences in a course, and breaching that limit will affect grades and ultimately could result in loss of credit for the course, according to the 2013-14 high school student handbook. Six absences are allowed in a marking period. On the seventh absence, the student’s grade is replaced with a “credit denial failure” notification and the grade is marked as 59 for the term.

Credit can be reinstated from the first, second and third marking periods if the student misses fewer than six days the following marking period.

Semester-long courses have a maximum of 12 absences, after which a failing grade is issued and credit is denied, according to the handbook. Yearlong courses have a maximum of 24 absences.

Some absences, such as death in the immediate family, observance of religious holidays, court appearances and medical absences with doctor’s verification, do not count toward those limits.

After five absences, a meeting will be called between the student, parents and school personnel.

Giuca told the School Committee last week the school wants to identify students who may struggle with school work and intervene before problems with courses turn into attendance problems. Keeping those kids in school, and helping them with their work, will improve their MCAS scores and chances of graduating, Giuca said last week.

Methuen High School’s graduation rate has hovered around 82 percent in recent years, Giuca said.

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