School’s out

A new Washoe County School District policy says students can skip school—and make up the work

Can the Washoe County School District’s new attendance policy solve classroom overcrowding?

Can the Washoe County School District’s new attendance policy solve classroom overcrowding?

Photo By David Robert

A Washoe County high school teacher recently watched a group of her students leave campus during her class period. They returned with Taco Bell wrappers. The teacher, a nine-year veteran, felt that her authority to deal with the situation was stymied by a new attendance policy implemented this semester. The new policy states that students have the privilege to request makeup work without suffering academic consequences.

“This makes me so mad,” Nichole Truax said. Truax teaches at Truckee Meadows Community College High School, but also teachers at other schools, including Reno High School, said the policy has had similar impacts. “Most teachers do not like this policy,” Truax continued.

The policy is the result of a stormy two-year process that revealed fundamental ideological differences among district educators.

Buried in a Byzantine system of attendance codes, the new policy mandates that absences, including suspensions and truancies, not impact student academics. “Students will be given the opportunity to make up work for truancies and suspensions,” reads the new policy. In other words, students can miss class for any reason without expecting deductions from their academic grades, as long as they make up the work.

“There’s a lot of room for abuse,” said TMCC High School junior Brian Erickson, 16.

School Board member Lezlie Porter, who helped develop the new policy, said the district isn’t trying to keep it a secret. “It’s in the handbook,” she said.

Another item that frustrates teachers is the new designation “missed instruction.” A student is no longer “tardy.” If a student attends any portion of the class period, even a few minutes, the student is not counted absent. Instead, teachers mark excused or unexcused “missed instruction,” and the student can request makeup work. This clause has stirred numerous complaints.

School Board President Nancy Hollinger has heard many of them. “The bookkeeping alone is a big thing,” she said.

Still, Hollinger wants to give the policy at least a year before deciding whether to revisit the issue, although she is sure that the new policy increases a teacher’s workload.

Porter disagreed. “It doesn’t have to be onerous,” she said.

Truax disputed Porter’s assessment. “It makes more work for teachers,” she said.

Her “biggest concern,” however, is that “we are giving the same attendance code to a student who is five minutes late and one who is 45 minutes late.”

The old policy needed modification, say some educators. It gave teachers and administrators little room for circumventing rigid attendance standards. The intention of the new policy is “to save those few who really sincerely have had a change of heart,” as Porter put it. The new policy gives students a second chance, she said.

Hollinger didn’t think any change was necessary. “I don’t think the old policy was too harsh. I actually felt that [students who needed to miss class] had a better chance under the old policy.”

Years ago, tardiness and absences affected academic grades. In the 1980s, the district developed so-called citizenship grades to reflect behavioral issues such as tardiness. At the same time, the district developed a 10-days-per-year absence standard. A student could take up to 10 unexcused absences without failing due to absenteeism, a system many educators thought was fair.

A schism between two educational philosophies, one oriented toward results, the other toward the process, underlies the current debate about attendance codes and procedures.

“I’m just old-fashioned enough to think that there’s education going on all the time in the classroom,” said Hollinger. “Testing isn’t the whole story.”

On the philosophical flipside stand Porter and North Valleys High School Principal Cinda Gifford, who cited research claiming that punitive attendance policies are not conducive to achieving educational goals. In other words, students who are punished for missing class are less likely to go to school and eventually graduate.

Porter and Gifford sat on the assessment committee that presented a revised attendance policy to the school board a year ago. The proposal was a radical departure from prior policy. There would have been no time-based requirement. A student would have been able to miss as much class as he or she wanted and still pass, as long as he or she mastered the relevant exams.

Board members, with the exception of Porter, interpreted state law as requiring a set attendance figure. The board rejected the idea of dropping a time-based policy and settled on 90 percent, meaning that a student cannot pass a course if he or she exceeds a 10 percent unexcused absence rate.

The process, one committee member said, resulted in a mish-mash set of guidelines that reflect conflicting ideologies.

Widely known as a proponent of home schooling, Porter speaks for those educators who believe “learning-based,” or results-oriented, education yields superior outcomes to “time-based,” or process-oriented, education. “The whole point of going to school is that we want kids to graduate,” said Porter.

Her critics charge, however, that the new policy fails to instill a sense of accountability in students. “I tend to think that attendance is important,” said Hollinger.

In response, Gifford said the new policy provides consequences for a student who chooses truancy. “That consequence does not necessarily have to impact their academic grade,” she said. She mentioned alternatives such as Saturday school and study hall.

Teachers who ignore the new policy may be subject to administrative discipline, yet one high-school teacher said, “I don’t pay much attention to that stuff.” His Advanced Placement students don’t have attendance problems. Several of his colleagues expressed dissatisfaction with the new policy.

Teachers who deduct points for late assignments apparently act in violation of policy, although there are conflicting interpretations. The policy directs teachers to “identify consequences for the truancy or suspension that do not impact student academics.”

Teachers may issue makeup work that doesn’t mirror exactly what went on in class. For example, if students are discussing Act III of Hamlet, and a student shows up 50 minutes late and requests makeup work, the teacher could require a written summary of Act III. This creates a burden for both teacher and student.

In past years, many teachers would have simply said, “Ask a classmate.” Now they are violating policy if they require students to work it out for themselves. According to policy, “Students will be provided the opportunity to request and complete makeup work for absences and missed instruction.”

Porter and Gifford said the policy enhances student responsibility because students must initiate the request for makeup work.

Evidence of confusion caused by the policy has come in the form of district-wide e-mails detailing when to change an absence from UNV (unverified) to DOM (domestic) or CIR (circumstance), assuming it hasn’t already been designated MED (medical), ALT (alternative setting, such as Juvenile Hall) or CT (confirmed truancy). Moreover, it can be difficult to differentiate between suspected and confirmed truancies.

It’s not every day, after all, that a teacher watches her students leave class for Taco Bell.