I've heard from plenty of Buffalo teachers lately who are upset about the state's requirement that all students -- regardless of their attendance -- be counted toward the local 20 percent of teacher evaluations that measure growth.
One of the things that has them particularly irked is the fact that Buffalo no longer has a policy requiring students to attend school a certain number of days.
"There's no attendance policy. The students can be absent any number of days and still be counted [as passing]," said Jodi Hammond, a fifth-grade teacher at Frank Sedita Academy.
She and many other teachers have mentioned to me a policy that was discontinued under former Superintendent James Williams -- one that said a student had to attend at least 85 percent of the time. If a student missed more than 28 days, he or she could not sit for the final exam.
I got curious.
I asked a couple of City Hall administrators for a copy of that old policy, but they told me they couldn't locate it. Finally, Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon herself provided a copy to me.
Here's what I found out.
In 2000, the School Board adopted a policy that laid out pretty clear rules for student attendance:
- If a student missed more than 15 percent of days in any marking period, he or she would get a failing grade for that marking period.
- If a student fell below 85 percent attendance for the year, he or she was "denied the opportunity to take their final exam." No distinction was made between excused and unexcused absences.
- Students with extenuating circumstances could appeal the decision.
- Teachers had to send a form letter to parents/guardians after a student misses three classes in a marking period.
Here's an excerpt from a story we ran in June 2001:
Student attendance rates rose dramatically in Buffalo high schools this year. However, the new attendance policy that prompted the increase also is preventing hundreds of students from taking final exams.
At Grover Cleveland High School, for instance, about 150 of the 808 students were not allowed to take some or all of their exams because they missed more than 15 percent of their classes in a particular subject. In some cases, the crackdown means students won't graduate on time.
That was the downside of a policy that, overall, resulted in more students attending more classes this year. As of May 25, districtwide attendance was 92.35 percent, a sizable jump from last year's rate of 90.6 percent.
While that 1.75 percentage point increase may not sound like much, state officials say it represents a significant improvement when spread across an enrollment of 48,000 students.
And the trend was even more dramatic at city high schools, where increases -- some of them more than 10 percent -- were recorded at all 17 schools.
At the same time, individual high schools barred dozens of students from taking exams because they missed more than 15 percent of the instructional year -- or 28 days of class. District officials said that was an inevitable consequence of an 85 percent attendance requirement instituted this year to boost attendance, accountability and achievement.
"You can't learn if you aren't in school," said School Board President Paul G. Buchanan. "Students and parents have to know that we're serious about this, and that there are consequences. Everyone's first responsibility is to get students to school."
"The improvement has really been outstanding, and right across the board," said Catherine F. Battaglia, principal at City Honors School, where attendance was up 7 percentage points.
Attendance at Burgard increased 15 percentage points, to 88 percent from 73 percent. There were also gains of 9 percentage points at both South Park and Buffalo Alternative high schools, and 8 percentage points at Emerson Vocational High School. Principals said those numbers closely reflect the results of earlier marking periods.
More-modest increases were posted at most city elementary schools.
The changes in the attendance policy coincided with changes in the grading policy. Beginning in 2005, among other things, teachers could not give a report card grade lower than 50 in any marking period. (But the details on that are interesting enough to warrant a blog post of their own another day.)
Now, here's an excerpt from a story that ran in June 2006, after the minimum attendance policy was lifted:
On some days, as few as three of 25 registered students show up for Bonnie Campbell's art class at Buffalo's Lafayette High School.
And in Rhonda Mathiebe's health class, attendance dips as low as eight of 32 students.
Teachers place much of the blame on a new grading system that allows many students to pass their courses even if they don't show up for the second half of the school year.
Many students have learned that, if they earn an 80 average through the first half of the school year, they can skip the rest of year and still pass. The lowest grade the district gives is 50, so that grade averaged with the 80 results in a passing grade of 65.
Teachers said the new policy -- which involves the elimination of district-generated final exams -- has caused low attendance rates at Buffalo public high schools to get even worse.
"It [absenteeism] is just rampant," said Campbell, a teacher for 30 years. "The students know they don't have to be here [to pass], and there's no way of keeping them in the building."
The problem is hardly confined to Lafayette. For the attendance period that ended March 31, 12 of 13 city high schools had lower attendance rates than they did during the corresponding period last school year.
In many cases, the drop was severe. Riverside's rate fell from 78.5 to 67 percent; Seneca's from 82.2 to 74.5 percent; East's from 81.1 to 77.3 percent; and Lafayette's from 83.8 to 78.6 percent. School officials say attendance rates of less than 90 percent are unacceptable.
The grading system in effect since December is a significant factor, Lafayette Principal Jacquelyn Baldwin said.
"There are students who are smart enough to find the out," she said. "The kids looking for the out took it."
Last week, Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes told me the district would not be likely to adopt a policy again that sets a minimum bar for student attendance: "That was a policy that serves adults and not students. The district is not going to engage in that kind of reversal any more. I can't imagine a time when we would create a policy that punishes students for not attending school instead of looking at why they don't attend school and solving those problems.
"That policy created a scapegoat for student attendance problems. It blamed parents and families entirely. The district did not assume any of the responsibility, and that was wrong. When we create schools that engage students, attendance improves."
This week, Dixon told me that in 2005, when the policy was changed, it seemed to make sense to do away with a minimum attendance requirement.
"Kids weren't allowed to take Regents exams. The legality was, how can you stop a child from taking a Regents exam in New York State?" she said. "It was viewed as an obstacle to graduation. If attendance was keeping someone from getting course credit on a course they had passed, we weren't helping anyone move along."
She said she's going to leave it up to the principals to provide guidance to the district on whether the district should reinstate a minimum attendance requirement. A group of high school principals already met; elementary school principals will be meeting soon.
"I did direct our principals to start looking at that and make a recommendation," she said.
- Mary Pasciak