When a student misses school, they can only make up their work if the absence is excused. Otherwise, they must take a zero.

Elementary principals, however, have asked the Cumberland County Board of Education to consider easing that rule, especially for younger students.

“An elementary student does not have a lot of choice in going to school or not,” Rebecca Wood, chief academic officer, told the policy committee during its Oct. 3 meeting. “They can miss a great deal of work, and principals are very concerned about the skills they are not practicing.

“Principals feel that is putting them at an academic disadvantage.”

Wood polled all principals. The elementary principals were united in their response — they want students to have the opportunity to make up missed work, regardless of the reason they missed school.

At the high school level, however, principals had mixed opinions. Some felt the zeros for missed days discouraged students from even attempting to catch up. Others felt the academic consequences encouraged students to come to school, particularly for students over 18 years old who are no longer subject to truancy court.

Director of Schools Janet Graham said, “I’ve been on both sides, and I see both sides of the argument. What we really want is for students to learn and to get something from it.”

The school system allows students to be excused from school for personal illness, the illness or death of a family member, extreme weather conditions, religious observances, college, visits, school-sponsored or endorsed activities, driver’s license and permit appointments, court appearances, pregnancy, emergencies the student has no control over, and other absences preapproved by principals. 

The policy does not excuse personal family vacations.

The state is also evaluating the school system’s performance on chronic absenteeism. This looks at the number of students missing 18 days or more during a school year — regardless of if the absence is excused or unexcused. Last year, 9.3% of elementary students in the county were considered chronically absent while 17.5% of high school students were chronically absent.

Tom Netherton, 6th District representative, said he appreciates the principals and teachers are willing to take on the extra work involved in preparing the missed work.

The committee considered changing the policy to allow students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade to make up work and leave the high school prohibition in place. Graham said Phoenix School Principal Stephanie Barnes had asked the committee to consider a change for the high school level, as well.

“I know Ms. Barnes very much wants her students to make up their work,” Graham said. 

Tony Brock, 5th District representative, said, “The best thing you can do is allow a student make up their work — if he wants to. You know what, the best thing you can do for a kid is make a student make up the work, even if he doesn’t want to.

“The answer still comes down to make up the work.”

Wood said at one time students were allowed to make up any work missed. Some students would come in to the school, drop off a folder of work and pick up a folder of the next week’s work. 

In 2013, when the policy was changed to prohibit making up work missed during an unexcused absence, 23 members of the senior class had been absent 27 to 62 days. While the policy allows attendance to be considered in granting or denying credit or student promotion, it “may not be the sole criterium.” 

Brock said, “Trying to help is also going to allow some behaviors you don’t want.”

Josh Stone, 4th District representative, suggested allowing any student under 18 years old to make up work. Those students are still subject to truancy court provisions and can lose their driver’s license if they do not attend school.

Jim Inman, 1st District representative, suggested limiting the number of unexcused absences students could make up missed work from. Graham suggested five days per semester, with 10 per year. 

Wood said one principal recalled a committee that would review credits for students with excessive absences and determine if credit should be awarded. 

Stone said, “Our push through policy has been to combat chronic absenteeism. This is going in the other direction, but is it in the best interest of the children? That’s the question we have to answer.”

Brock said, “Has any school come up with an answer for this? I have heard this my entire life. What can we do to get kids in the building? We offer them rewards for being there. We come up with punishments for not being there.

“If there is an answer for 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, I do not know what it is.”

The committee agreed to recommend the change for elementary students. This would allow the board to act on the policy change for those younger children in October, with the second reading in November. 

The committee and school personnel will study the problem and try to develop a compromise at a future meeting. 

Graham has been working with principals, administrators and others to develop administrative procedures for a new alternative school program to serve students in first through fifth grade.

“We’re going to require that there’s a behavior plan in place and the school has tried to work with the student for 45 days to change the behavior,” Graham told the committee. “We’re working on transition plans for when they go back to their school.”

She hopes to have the new program in place in January. However, the existing policy on alternative school programs will need to be adjusted. Right now, policy 6.319 deals with the process for older students, with disciplinary hearings following an expulsion or suspension from regular school programs.

“It would be very rare for a child in grades 1 through 5 to go through a DHA,” Graham said. “The premise of this program is working on behavior modification.”

She said there would be a great deal of communication taking place between the school and the alternative school principal Stephanie Barnes, as well as with the parent. 

Graham will bring a proposal to the policy committee in November and will ask the board to approve the policy on the first and second reading during the combined November and December board meeting, allowing the program to begin in January.

Other policy changes recommended to the full board for action include:

•Family Life Education, policy 4.213, to provide a family life education program that conforms to state guidelines, including providing information about human reproduction, responsibilities and consequences related to sexual activity, and promoting sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, with age-appropriate education for students in seventh and eighth grade and high school wellness classes. Parents may choose to exempt their child from these sessions

•Teacher Effect Data, policy 5.1141, to replace the existing policy with a statement that specific teacher effect data is not a public record. Under law, information on the value-added test scores of a specific teacher in third through eighth grade can only be made available to the specific teachers, board members, and the teacher’s appropriate administrators

•Code of Behavior and Discipline, policy 6.300, to include that students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten would use alternative disciplinary practices, such as a time-out, with students given one minute of time out per year of age

•Child Abuse and Neglect, policy 6.409, to add that faculty and staff have a legal responsibility to report suspected child abuse and neglect, and failure to do so may subject the employee to criminal charges or possible litigation. It also adds that the principal is not in violation of any law by failing to inform parents or guardians if a child is interviewed as part of an abuse investigation



Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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