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Letter to the Editor: Is School System Attendance Policy Unfair?

Parent has concerns about excused absences.

I have a concern about the attendance policy for Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) - several concerns, actually. First, some background about my family: I have two boys, both of whom are in the upper –elementary grades at a Catonsville public school. They have both received report cards for a few years now, and have always earned almost all A’s in every single subject. Each semester we get comments on their report card from teachers saying that they are a joy to teach, are at the top of their class, and that they are doing work far beyond their grade level. While I could certainly expound upon their academic gifts all day, my concern is not that their education is in any way in peril. Quite the opposite actually. 

My husband and I have long believed that as much (and sometimes even more) learning can happen outside the classroom as in the classroom. It was with that thought in mind, and with the interest our kids showed in travel that we decided to book a cruise for the whole family. Our thinking was that we would do it as close to the end of hurricane season as we could – no need to include bad weather in our list of “things that might go wrong." We decided that the week before Thanksgiving would be best since there was likely to be less going on at school and we would then have the Thanksgiving break to complete any schoolwork missed. We thought it was a great plan. Unfortunately, BCPS has other ideas about what is the appropriate way to educate my kids.

There is an attendance policy in place in Baltimore County (which has been there for some time, as far as I know), which in the past two years has reached epic levels of importance as far as our particular elementary school is concerned. Parents have been presented with this policy (including consequences for failure to follow) at every Back to School Night, have received multiple fliers at home regarding its importance, and have been subjected to a full 45-minute presentation at a monthly PTA meeting regarding a study that links high school dropout rates to elementary school attendance problems. While I do not doubt the results of said study (that those who drop out of high school, in general have issues with attendance beginning in elementary school), I do wonder if the inverse is true. Do all students who miss days in elementary school become high school dropouts? I doubt it.

Here is my real problem with this policy: it is not serving the population it intends to identify and support. My children missed exactly 5 days during the second marking period. All five were for the family vacation that we chose to take.  If any work was missed during that time it was either not included while factoring out their grades or did not affect their grades enough for them to drop below the A’s that they earned. Both children received a warning interim, which I disregarded as a scare tactic. However, when I received their report cards two weeks ago, they both received all B’s. I thought it was unusual since their grades during the semester had not dropped at all. When I read the comment section in the back, however, it was made clear that the reason for their letter grade drop was the fact that they had 5 unexcused absences (more than 10%) and that as per BCPS policy, their grades would all be lowered.

Now, I do take these elementary school grades with a grain of salt. However, my fifth grader does not. He is concerned about the “permanent record” that we have all been taught to fear. I had warned my kids this was a possibility, all the time thinking “there’s no way that they will lower my kids grades over this”. The reason their absences were unexcused is one reason: I refuse to teach my children to lie. When we made the decision to take this trip, everyone asked us if we planned to just report that our kids were *ahem* “sick” for the week. My feeling is that it is hypocritical to raise your children with the values of honesty and telling the truth and to then show through my actions that those values only apply when the truth won’t cause you problems. Several  BCPS employees have implicitly told me that simply sending in a note to excuse my children’s absences will resolve this issue. (The only two excusable absences are illness and death of a family member. I will not be lying about either of these.) It doesn’t seem to matter that the excuse is a blatant lie, that all involved are complicit in the lie, and that there is no reasonable purpose for telling that lie.

The other sound bite I have been given in regards to why this policy is being so strictly adhered to this year is the following: First, that BCPS wants to stay connected to any students who may potentially need to be referred to the home and hospital program (for students whose chronic illness prevents them from attending regular school). Secondly, they want to support students whose absences are potentially the beginning of a pattern that will lead to them becoming a high school dropout.

Well, my children have yet to be sick this year for more than a day at a time, so clearly we do not belong to the first group. Also, I know some students who have received interims (not sure about their report cards) warning them about consequences of missing school when their children are ACTUALLY home sick. Considering the BCPS policy that suggests students be fever and illness-free for 24 hours before coming back to school, what exactly would they suggest parents do? Which policy is the priority? But I digress. The second reason would certainly make sense if my children had a pattern of regularly missing school, coming in late, or leaving early. But they do not. The teachers all knew about this pre-planned vacation. Therefore, the argument that BCPS is looking out for my children’s well-being and future is also incongruous. Who, exactly, are you protecting my children from? When did the judgment of the policy-makers at Baltimore County Public Schools trump my own? Honestly, the resources that have been wasted in impressing upon me the importance of my children going to school through presentations, fliers, interims, and plain conversation would have been much better utilized on children whose families really do need the support. I do not think my kids should be immune to the policy, but with the limited resources provided to education in this county, perhaps we can put them to more effective use. A little common sense wouldn’t hurt either.

If I had just sent in a note, all would have been fine. The school would have their paperwork excusing my kids and the kids would have their earned grades on their official record. But I am trying to raise two men here. It’s not about B’s on an elementary school report card. It’s about modeling appropriate behavior for my children. I hope they will become men who I can be proud of, whose behaviors match their values, and who stand up for what they feel is right – even if it means breaking the rules.

Kate Hemmis lives in Catonsville.

Cindy H February 17, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Great letter, thanks for writing it. It is indeed a crazy policy that requires you to teach your children to lie if you take them out for a family trip. I also find this policy regrettable, to say the least! Directing resources where they are needed versus "spraying and praying" a generic policy across the entire school population is an excellent suggestion.
Helen Schlessinger February 17, 2012 at 08:36 PM
Hi Kate, I share many of your thoughts and opinions. As a result, my children have never attended school. We recently moved to Maryland last May and this is the first state I've lived in that requires a review of homeschoolers. I'm doing my best to "comply" with what I consider an unrighteous gov't invasion of my home but I may be driving back to Texas sooner than planned! I had considered placing my oldest in Catonsville High School. We have been discussing this option as a family but the opportunity to move to Spain for 6months has come up - he decided to stay home so that he can go with us! My children have been raised all over the world and I wouldn't change who they are, what they have been exposed to, nor their education for any bureaucratic nonsense legislators and those who vote for them can throw at me. We should offer public education but it should never take the place (except for the obvious reasons with plenty of enforceable laws in place to prevent) of a parent's choices in raising their children.
Emily Lowe February 20, 2012 at 01:15 PM
Great letter -- articulate, logical and passionate. I hope you get a response from BCPS. As a teacher myself, I have always disliked attendance policies. When attendance becomes a real problem, grades drop accordingly, at which point the situation needs to be addressed. But if a student's parents (or later, the student himself) think he can make up the work and keep pace with the class, he should certainly be able to travel or stay home within reason. I missed a lot of class time in high school because I took so many high-level classes -- I would stay home and study all day! Thankfully, my private school wasn't strict about this and my parents were supportive too. I graduated second in my class with a full scholarship to college. So there is hope for your young truants. :) Stay strong!
Trish February 22, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Wonderful letter! We have been fortunate enough to take our children on several European and Mexico vacations as well as trips to discover our own country. My children's teachers talk about how much those experiences come out in the classroom and how beneficial they are. If given the choice, my kids would choose a trip back to Europe over Disney. My 6 year old just asked yesterday when we would go back to Paris. The policy is ridiculous and does not help anyone. Yes, I have written sick notes for a few days of the absence. Why? Because the teachers told me to. How sad that we need to lie to offer our children experiences of a lifetime. My children miss an average of 1-2 days a year for actually being sick but get threat letters from the school or county if I take them out for more than a day or 2 for an incredible trip and tell the truth. Insane! I have come to know the person in charge of attendance at our school and if she knows that your child was out for a vacation experience, she will not send the letter from the school. Does BCPS not see that even its staff has to skirt around this insane policy? Please let us know the county response. There are children missing too many days of school because they just don't want to go or their parents don't care. Teachers know who these children are. The policy does not need to be black and white.
Ginger February 22, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Kate, you are so eloquent in your statement. So very well spoken. I am so very, very frustrated by the policies in place. My Howard County friends tell me that their school district grants every child 3 personal days to do whatever they choose with. THIS sounds like a much more reasonable option. We are being FORCED to lie and model this to our children to avoid their grades being demoted. Is it the principal tying our hands? Is it Baltimore County? Either way - the policy is antiquated, ridiculous, and very close minded. It's all about numbers, not about educating the children, and it's very frustrating. Thank you for taking the time to bring up a policy that desperately needs to be re-addressed!
Kris February 22, 2012 at 08:13 PM
yesterday, I sent my son to school with a headache. he does not usually have headaches so I was concerned about it, but worried about him taking a sick day, and what the consequences would be from the school. How ridiculous that I am letting a policy factor into my judgement regarding how sick my son is and whether I should keep him home to get better
Christy Ryan February 22, 2012 at 09:22 PM
I understand and agree with much that is being said in this letter and the comments as well. I like the idea of having 3 personal days for the kids. That would be a nice option. However, I look at it from the teacher's point of view. If kids could just take off and go on vacation whenever they wanted to for as long as they wanted to, then I can see how it would be a lot of extra work for the teacher to provide the make-up assignments, missed tests, and missed lessons. Again, I am not being argumentative, but I do see the possible reasons for trying to emphasize vacationing during the 3 months that the kids don't have school.
Lauren Lowell February 22, 2012 at 09:29 PM
Well said, Kate. What really bothers me about the attendance policy is how inconsistent it is! My daughter missed quite of few days of Kindergarten a couple of years ago because we followed the illness policy to the letter. If she had a fever, we kept her home until it was gone for 24 hours. I sent in many a doctor's note during this year that should have excused the absences but we were still sent a warning letter from the school. This year, we went on a cruise in September. I sent in a note saying that even though I was aware the absences weren't going to be excused, I wanted her school to be aware of why she was not coming to class. I worked with her teacher and collected classwork and homework prior to our vacation and we set aside school-work time during our vacation. She missed 7 full days that quarter, 1 day because she was sick and all the other days were due to the cruise. I never received a letter of warning and her grades weren't dropped. She also attends a school in the Baltimore County system. So, I get warned for absences that ARE excused one year and a couple of years later the school doesn't bat an eye at unexcused absences? Who's making the judgement calls here?
Cindy H February 22, 2012 at 09:40 PM
I can understand that as well, though I find that there are some teachers who are more organized than others in this regard (with a standard system in place for putting aside work for absent students, whatever the reason for the absence might be). And we are already told that teachers are not required to give work in advance of an unexcused absence. I can see your point about administering missed tests, etc. That being said, we do take what is happening at school into account when planning the occasional schoolyear trip.
anne dempsey February 22, 2012 at 09:47 PM
When my children were in school, we had a very simple rule: If school was in session, the children were there unless they were too sick to attend. I can't imagine scheduling a cruise or another trip during the school year. That's what vacations are for.
Melissa February 22, 2012 at 09:47 PM
This attendance policy is not enforced consistently in BCPS schools. The schools enforce the attendance rules because of the MSA testing. One of the factors for making AYP (adequate yearly progress) is attendance as well as the test scores. I am sure that is what is driving the strict attendance rules at this school.
Cindy H February 22, 2012 at 09:52 PM
That was the rule in my house growing up too. (However, it was not the rule for everyone I went to school with - the kids who had money went on vacation with their parents when their parents' schedules allowed, vacation time or not.) It is the rule in our house too, with the rare exception -- twice in twelve years of my kids' school careers.
Becky J February 24, 2012 at 04:02 AM
My kids also attend a BCPS Elementary School and I HATE the no travel policy. We still take the kids out one or two days a year because of a trip and I also refuse to lie about it. My daughter got a zero on an assignment because she was walking the Freedom Trail. Oh well, she still got an A in the class and she learned a lot about our Country's history in the process. My husband has mentioned that he heard the principals get some sort of bonus if their school's attendance stays up and he thinks that is why they push it so much. Who knows, but it is annoying. I can see needing to prove that the trip is educational or having the kids write something about what they learned while they were gone but no travel is ridiculous. Places are cheaper and less crowded during the school year. Some of us can't afford to travel only in the summer. I've debated going to a county meeting sometime to bring it up, but I never know when they are until it's too late.
anthrogirl March 03, 2012 at 03:29 AM
My child attends the same school atsKate's. She received an interim report and a comment on her report card regarding her less than stellar attendance record. She missed less than 4 days and her absences were excused. It doesn't matter if your kid is sick and you have a doctor's note. You're kid will still be flagged at this school for poor attendance, regardless if she went on a cruise or had the flu.
Corinne March 04, 2012 at 08:34 PM
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. But if you chose as the PARENT to travel during the school year then that is your right. If your child is not doing well in school and missing alot of sick days well maybe you should reconsider traveling. Most parents know best and not everyone has time or wants to vacation in the less than 3 months we get for summer vacation.
Eilean April 19, 2012 at 08:49 PM
While I agree that a child should be in school, I don't agree that school is the only place learning can take place. Last year I was homeschooling my 3 children and since there is no "school year" for that we decided as a family that we would all "save" our birthdays and go on a cruise to celebrate my Mother turning 75. After that decision was made I had a severe injury and could no longer homeschool. My kids now go to a public school and were repeatedly told to have me write a note that they all had the "flu" so that they would not be counted as absent without a cause. Now, my kids are normal well adjusted kids... but they are taught not to lie and my oldest got really upset at being told to. Having a teacher tell a child to tell the parent to lie just screams "wrong". My children will be missing Friday this week because we are traveling yet again (camping) I don't plan to lie about it either. With jobs harder than ever to find and more restrictions being placed on when and where you can go on your time off, more and more kids will either not get to travel at all or miss school. When I was a child my father worked for the Government. He was not allowed to take personal days or vacation during the summer because of what his job entailed and when he would most likely be needed to travel. So our vacations were during school... I turned out fine. Three college degrees and Who's Who listings. Travel doesn't kill scholarship, apathetic parents do.
anthrogirl October 10, 2012 at 12:25 PM
I did my student teaching back in the 80s. It was in high school. My students were allowed one week for hunting. And it wasn't one week in particular. They could take 5 days any time during the hunting season. I had a lot of kids go hunting, boys and girls. Back then, parents consdiered the time off important. They were teaching their kids life skills and they were stocking their freezers with food.

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