LAWRENCE — In an effort to have more students show up for school every day and on time, the district has revamped its attendance policy, in some ways making it stricter but in other ways giving more chances to tardy or truant students who might otherwise just give up and drop out.

Wednesday night before the Lawrence Alliance for Education — the state-appointed board that has taken over the duties of the former School Committee — Assistant Superintendent Denise Snyder outlined the multi-part strategy. The board approved it unanimously.

She said it updates a policy that was 15 or 20 years old and which needed to be changed because student attendance continues to be a problem in Lawrence.

Some of the changes are substantive while others are more symbolic. The general goal is to enhance communications with parents while giving students a chance to make up work for excused absences. At the same time, there are real consequences for having too many absences, from requiring extra work on holidays to court action. 

“These are significant changes,” she said. “We are really trying to turn the corner on attendance.”

As of 2017-18, the district had an overall attendance rate of 92.1 percent, about 3 percentage points below the goal of having students in school at least 95 percent of the time, she said.

The Columbia Gas disaster of Sept. 13, 2018, will likely have a significant impact on the attendance rate for 2018-19, she said, as homes were damaged, streets were closed and people were living in emergency trailers.

It could go as low as 90 percent, although final attendance numbers for last year aren’t in yet.

“If it falls below 90 percent that’s considered chronic absenteeism,” she said, which gets flagged by the state. 

As part of the district’s turnaround plan, which started with a takeover of the school district in 2011 because there were so many failing schools, the state wants to know what the district is doing to enhance attendance rates.

“The state is emphasizing it,” Snyder said. “We are OK (with attendance), just not where we should be.”

She said Lawrence is at about the same level of absenteeism as cities like Lowell and New Bedford, which, like Lawrence, are gateway cities with high immigrant populations with varying degrees of English-language skills and education levels.

Last year, she and others started to “dig into our data” to see “where we are having challenges, and what the story is telling us.”

They convened several meetings of the Presidents’ Council — made up of PTO presidents, parents, students and staff — to talk about the “challenges of attendance and why kids don’t attend school.”

They found there are myriad reasons for failed attendance, so the new policy takes a multi-pronged approach to the problem.

‘A way to bounce back’

According to flyers being mailed to parents and the new policy on the district’s website, going forward there will be two tiers of absenteeism: Level 1 and Level 2.

Level 1 includes legitimate, pre-excused absences such as severe illnesses, chronic illness, medical appointments, bereavement, major religious holidays, student hospitalizations, family member hospitalizations and “other exceptional unforeseen emergencies.”

If a student misses school for one of those reasons, he or she can do make-up work to get back up to speed in classes. 

Level 2 absences include basically anything else and are considered unexcused. As such, make-up work will not be allowed for Level 2 absences.

At the high school, if a student misses four days in a quarter, he or she gets an “N” for an attendance record, meaning the student is “not on track for credit.”

If the students gets four more “N”s in any of the ensuing quarters, he or she loses credit for that class and either has to take it again or find an alternate way to make up the credit.

Snyder said options include “acceleration academies,” which are done during vacations for at-risk kids to help them “get back on track.”

“Summer school is always an option,” she added. “We try not to make a child repeat a grade if they can make the next grade level with a little intervention.”

Meanwhile, the use of the letter “N,” she said, was intentional. In the past, students would get a “W/F,” which meant “Withdraw/Fail.” 

“If a kid sees ‘fail’ on their card, they might say, ‘I have no way of coming back from this. I’m 16 going into 9th grade — I might as well drop out,’” she said.

“What they need is to be motivated,” she added. “These are little signals, tangible things, to get them over the hump. An ‘N’ is not a big ‘F.’ There’s still hope. There’s a way to bounce back.”

Improving communication

Throughout the policy, especially in the lower grades, there are numerous avenues for school officials to interact with parents, caregivers and students.

“A big part of this is us doing a better job of communicating policies, and helping families understand the value of not missing school,” Snyder said.

In addition, there is always the threat of legal action.

The policy states that chronic absenteeism will be met with calls and possibly a visit from the city’s truancy officers.

“If push comes to shove, we can use the court system. If a kid misses 40 days of school, we could file a 51A, child neglect,” she said.

“We have a truancy officer, who could bring them to court,” she added. “That’s the far end of absenteeism. It starts with us being proactive, and talking to parents and working with students.”

In many cases, a language barrier can make it difficult for English-speaking teachers to communicate with parents who may have recently come to the country and can’t speak English. In those cases, teachers can use an app on their smart phones that translates text messages so that Spanish-readers can see what’s going on with their child.

“Using an app that translates English into Spanish allows teachers to proactively set up a time to meet with a parent,” she said, adding that the district would then provide an interpreter at the meeting.

“Classrooms are well-equipped” for English-Spanish communication, she said. “But we’ve got to get better at having conversations with parents, even when there are language barriers.”

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