After months of discussion with teachers, parents, students and the school board itself, Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch proposed a new truancy policy for the school last week.
The board won’t vote on the policy until later this summer, but Lynch said in an interview Tuesday that the policy could be a critical step toward reinstating strict enforcement of attendance at Berkeley High.
Exact numbers on student absences during the school year just ended weren’t available Tuesday, but Lynch said the average attendance rate for Berkeley High’s 3,300 students is around 94 percent. In a 180-day school year, that’s enough unexcused absences to keep 200 students out of class all year long.
That’s not exactly how absences accumulate, of course. Anecdotal information suggests a majority of Berkeley High students cut some classes during the year, and a small minority of students accumulate absences at a much higher rate.
A recent study conducted by the staff of Berkeley High’s Rebound program found that a group of 50 students who are failing two or more classes accumulated 464 absences in just one class – and just 45 days – this spring.
But even those students missing 50 classes or more in a semester face no clear consequences under Berkeley High’s current system, Lynch said. Attempts are made to contact the students’ parents by phone, he said. Sometimes staff meet with the student to try to identify the reasons behind their absences. But if such efforts fail to alter the student’s behavior, then there are no further steps in place to bring more pressure to bare.
“Nada. Nothing,” Lynch said.
This at a time when California’s state education code says a student can be declared a habitual truant after three full days of unexcused absences, clearing the way for the local district attorney’s office to prosecute his or her parents or guardian.
In Monterey County, where Lynch once served as superintendent of a small school district, a local ordinance gives police authority to ticket and fine students found out of class between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., Lynch said. The proceeds from the fines are used to pay school resource officers, he added.
The proposed truancy policy for Berkeley High would require teachers to place a call to a student’s parents after three days of unexcused absences to discuss how missing class could impact the student’s grades. Teachers would also be encouraged to discuss other issues about the student’s performance with the parents at this time. Finally, the teacher would have to fill out a Truancy Intervention Form recording the time and date of the call.
After five days of unexcused absences the teacher would have to fill out another form and submit it to the Truancy Intervention Coordinator, a new position being funded at Berkeley High next year with money from the Berkeley Public Schools Educational Excellence Project (BSEP) tax measure.
Lynch said the Truancy Intervention Coordinator will be charged with making absolutely sure parents are contacted and made aware of their child’s absences, either by phone or other means (in the past, calls from teachers alone have often gone unanswered). The coordinator would also work to connect the student with a peer mentor and/or school guidance counselor, to help the student work through problems that could be keeping him or her out of class.
Lynch said the idea of connecting habitual truant students with a peer mentor could hold particular promise, since it gives the whole truancy policy a little more validity in the eyes of the truant student.
“If you get the students involved in it and they become part of the solution, then I think you’re going to see to see this really take off,” Lynch said.
In terms of instituting accountability in a system that has long been criticized for its lack of this key ingredient, it will be the Truancy Intervention Coordinator’s job to draw up a “contract” with the truant student, parents and relevant teachers. This document would establish a clear plan for getting the student to class, including consequences for continued absences. The consequences could include an automatic failing grade in a class where the student has accumulated too many absences, Lynch said.
If a student reaches seven or more days of unexcused absences, a Student Attendance Review Team consisting of the student, the parent or guardian, a school administrator, a counselor, a teacher and, where appropriate, a school psychologist, would be assembled. The SART would try one more time to change the student’s attendance patterns. Students who fail to respond to the SART’s recommendations would face more serious consequences.
If it is found that they are not Berkeley residents, for example, they could be removed from the Berkeley school system altogether. In the case of those students who are Berkeley residents, they might be encouraged to transfer to another Berkeley program (i.e. independent study or a “continuation” program) or see their cases referred to the district attorney’s office, Lynch said.
Lynch emphasized Tuesday that, while he feels it is important to have a truancy policy in place by next fall, he considers the proposed policy a work in progress, to be amended and improved in the years ahead.