By Heather Mullinix
Changes to the schools attendance policy gained a narrow majority of support from the Cumberland County Board of Education on first reading this past month with a 5-4 vote. But before those changes can become final, a second successful reading by the board is necessary.
"I hate for this to slip by on a 5-4 vote and the folks on the side of the four feel they've not been heard on this issue," said Charles Tollett, 1st District representative. "It's clear to me several honestly disagree with the position I take. I hope there's a way we can take a look at all of this and come to more consensus."
The policy change removed a provision that allowed high school students to skip final exams if they met certain grade and attendance criteria and students with unexcused absences would no longer be allowed to make up missed work.
Previously schools allowed students to make up any work missed, whether their absence from school was excused or unexcused. However, principals said that was placing a burden on teachers, especially at the high school level, with students asking for upwards of 60 days worth of make-up work. Many of those students are over the age of 18 and not subject to truancy laws, leaving schools little ability to punish students for not attending classes.
"We're not teaching our kids to do the right thing if they can lay out just because they don't want to come to school today," said Janet Graham, principal of Cumberland County High School.
She previously told the policy committee there were 23 members of the last senior class that had unexcused absences ranging from 27 to 62 days. The policy and focus on graduation rates had discouraged schools from withholding work from absent students.
"If we allow students to miss 40 or 50 days of school and send them to work at Walmart with Mr. Janeway, what does he do? He fires them," Graham said. Janeway is a manager at the Crossville Walmart store. "I can't fire students. The onus is on us. We may take a pop in our graduation rate, but if they understand that we really mean business and that we'll work with them..."
Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, said he'd seen students come in on Friday, drop off the work they'd missed the week before and pick up the next week's assignments.
"Our grad rate may go down a point or two, but they're not going to have the ability to sit at home and not come to school," Janeway said.
Reasons for missing school that would be considered excused absences include personal illness, or the illness of an immediate family member; death in the family; extreme weather conditions; recognized religious observances; failure of a school bus to make scheduled or snow routes; or appointments with a doctor or dentist. The policy also allows students a one-day absence when their parent or custodian is deployed into active military service or returns from active military service. The policy also allows for circumstances which, in the judgment of the principal, create emergencies over which the student has no control, or that involve an educational opportunity not otherwise available.
A maximum of five days each semester will be recognized as an excused absence with a parent note, but those notes must include an acceptable reason for the absence.
The change to the exam exemption is something graduates have asked the schools to consider, said Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative.
"The feedback we've gotten from seniors that have gone on to college for the past four or five years has said we did not prepare them to take finals in college," Janeway said.
Tollett said that feedback was what prompted him to support the change.
Graham said graduates encourage the school system to change the policy every year in graduate surveys. The surveys are given to former students a few years after graduating from Cumberland County schools.
"Every year they say we're hurting the students who plan on continuing their education because they never take a comprehensive exam," Graham said.
While students always have the option to take the exam even if they are exempt, few avail themselves of that option if they learn they aren't required to take the test.
David Bowman, 7th District representative, objected to removing the exemption provision, adding, "We'll have a lot more truancy issues. It does a lot to keep attendance up because they don't have to take finals. It's not fair to the kids making good grades."
Other policies considered on first reading were:
•Home schools, policy 6.202, adding home school students may try out for athletic teams at public schools for teams recognized by the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Students must be registered as home school students with the school system in a home school conducted by the student's parent or guardian and register their intent to participate prior to April 30 of the upcoming fall sports season, and prior to Nov. 1 for the upcoming spring sport season. The policy does not guarantee home school students will make the team, but does ensure they be allowed to try out.
•Zero tolerance offenses, policy 6.309, adding electronic threats as a reason for expulsion.
•Physical assault leave, policy 5.307, providing workers' compensation benefits to teachers who are absent from work as a result of personal injury caused by physical assault or other violent criminal acts committed in the course of the teacher's duties.
•Nepotism, policy 1.108, calling for disclosure of family relationships of new hires to board members, the director, school administrators, county commissioners or any appointed or elected official; requiring board members to disclose any such relationship prior to voting on any matter that may have an effect on the employment of that relative; and not allowing someone to directly supervise or be directly supervised by a relative. Relatives will include spouse, parents, in-laws, grandparents, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces or any person residing in the same household.
•Suspension/expulsion/remand, policy 6.319, states a student may not face disciplinary action if, after investigation, administrators find a student acted in self-defense under reasonable believe they or another student may have been facing the threat of imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.
•Extracurricular activity drug testing, policy 6.3071, removes "all signatures must be witnessed by a designated school official and must comply with consent requirements as stated on the consent form."
•Emergency preparedness plan, policy 3.202, calls for the first fire drill to be held within the first 15 days of the start of the school year, one fire drill every month and three additional safety drills throughout the school year to cover inclement weather, armed intruders or other emergency situations.
The policies were approved on first reading following the recommendation of the committee, with Janeway, Tollett, 5th District Representative Gordon Davis, 9th District Representative Dan Schlafer and 8th District Representative Jim Blalock voting in favor. Voting no were Bowman, 3rd District Representative Sandy Brewer, 4th District Representative Josh Stone and 6th District Representative Vivian Hutson.
Policies require two successful readings before taking effect. With that in mind and the start of the school year set for August, Janeway asked for those on the dissenting side to bring their ideas for the attendance policy to the policy committee so that policies can be prepared for printing student handbooks for the coming year.
Policies approved on second and final reading include policy 1.400, school board meetings, requiring a moment of silence and pledge to the flag at the start of all school board meetings, including work sessions and special-called meetings; and policy 4.207, limited English proficient/language minority students, adding students will be identified as limited English proficiency after they take the TELPA screener assessment.