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Tougher school absence policy being considered

Ohanian Comment: I read something like this and figure the intense pressure put on school folk has just made these people flip out. What other explanation could there be?

I speak as someone being a kid who occasionally felt like staying home--and whose mom let her. If I felt this way as a star student and teacher's pet, imagine how the other kids felt. Imagine how these kids today feel.

And who wants kids with flu, colds, and whooping cough coming to school and infecting everybody else?


WATERBURY -- Routine illness, even with a doctor's note, would no longer be considered an excused absence under a tough new school attendance policy proposed to the Board of Education on Monday.

The policy, designed to reduce the city's high truancy rates, would excuse health-related absences only if a student is hospitalized or presents proof of a "serious chronic illness," such as diabetes or asthma.

"We now are looking for school to be the priority," said Michael Yamin, an assistant principal at Kennedy High School and head of a committee of teachers, administrators and others who drafted the new regulations.

The existing attendance policy does not require sickness to be serious or chronic, and allows the school district to require medical certification only after five consecutive absences, or 15 absences in a year. The proposed policy would also limit successful appeals of absences to once per school level -- once each in elementary, middle and high school.

Students would be allowed to request an attendance hearing once a year.

Students and parents can use the hearings to argue that absences should be excused, but the final decision would be up to the principal.

An analysis by board member John Theriault showed that nearly 70 percent of all appeals last year were granted.

The committee spent eight months developing the proposed requirements, which come amid intense scrutiny of low attendance rates in city schools. Each day an average of 1,500 of the city's 18,000 students are not in class, and some schools have absence rates as high as one third.

Police officers now accompany attendance workers on some home visits. Officials have agreed to begin fining the parents of some truant children $25 for each absence, making Waterbury the only school district in the state to do so, educators say. A "blue-ribbon" committee to examine truancy is being developed. Under state law, students who exceed four absences in a month, or 10 absences in a year, are considered legally truant. Under Waterbury policy, students with more than 18 unexcused absences cannot advance grades or graduate.

Members of the committee that drafted the attendance proposal acknowledged it's stricter than the existing policy, but insisted that tighter rules are necessary to boost attendance.

"If you're going to be wishy-washy, you're going to give the message (attendance) is not that important. I think we need a policy with some teeth in it," said Walsh School Principal Erik Brown, who recently drove to the Brass Mill Center to retrieve four students found in the mall during the school day.

The school board will vote on the plan on Monday.

Glenis Vialva, who oversees services for truant students at Waterbury Youth Service System Inc., said the policy merely enforces the attendance requirements already written in state law.

"If we stick with the law and reinforce it, changes will come," she said.

Assistant Superintendent Anne Marie Cullinan, who oversees attendance issues, stressed that the policy is aimed at chronic truants who miss dozens of school days. Principals will retain some discretion in evaluating absences, she said.

Board members generally supported the proposal, agreeing with President Patrick Hayes that "we've got to draw the line somewhere."

But Theriault, a former city teacher and principal, cautioned that the rules are too strict.

"We're setting our students up for more failure here," he said, pointing out the city's longstanding policy has been to excuses illnesses with doctors' notes. He also suggested that some students with legitimate grounds for appeal would be wronged by the provision limiting attendance hearings.

The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal next Monday.

— Randy James


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