Friday, February 25, 2011

School Attendance a Parent Primer

I have seen several posts lately on school attendance crack down at schools and questions about how to handle the problem.

The first step is to understand why the crackdowns are starting. New federal and some state laws have increased the pressure on local communities to report and mandate attendance or risk losing federal and in some areas state funding for local schools. Now, this is a different issue than the one that has caused problems in homeschooling communities that some have dubbed "Dollars for Scholars." This puts pressure on parents to enroll their children in the local public schools to prevent lost funding to the district. Homeschooling parents have complained this has led to harassment and unnecessary investigations into their actions as homeschoolers. That is a different issue.

The old rule actually in some senses is responsible for the new rules. Under the old legislation the issue was getting children into the seats to qualify for federal funding and where appropriate state funding based on numbers. This has created some issues. For instance, Jane would enroll in Public School A. Public School A qualifies for funding and Jane moves out of district enrolling in Public School B. If the world works the way it is supposed to, Jane is only funded by federal and state resources at one school. If the paper work is not properly filled out a few possible scenarios can happen. Both schools receive funding for Jane. One school or both school looses out on funding depending on how badly organized the schools are when it comes to financial paperwork. Sometimes there is fraud and sadly, sometimes it is just incompetence.

Under the new guidelines, districts are forced to demonstrate that Jane is attending school in order to qualify for funding. If Jane is not in school, they are required to demonstrate a plan of action to show they are trying to bring Jane back to school or they will not be funded for Jane's attendance at school any longer.

How does this trickle down to parents who are asking questions on message boards? These laws were designed to address two issues fraud and truancy. Most parents asking these questions are not engaged in helping school districts commit fraud and their children are not guilty of truancy. The problem is that these laws were designed more as criminal law than civil law. They are focused on crime and punishment, not trying to negotiate contract and payment. As a result, we have many parents stuck in a conflict between school and government.

The first step is to read and understand your local school policy. If this is not given to you by the school, get a copy of it. Check with the school board to make sure that the school's policy complies with the district's policy. Schools have been known to make up their own rules as they go along. It does not make them legal when it comes to attendance.

I would suggest doing this before you have an issue with the school. It is can be dull reading, but this information is important to understand. While your child is healthy now, issues can come up and it that is not the time you want to be researching the attendance policy.

Keep a folder or binder for each child. Some people think this is over kill, but it can make your life easier. Keep school policies, teacher requirements, copies of relevant notes, e-mails, and papers related to each child's school issues in this folder. I would not suggest you use this as your child's portfolio of school papers you want to keep, etc. If you have school papers you want to keep for a meeting or referral, this would be a good place to store them. However, try not to let this become too cluttered.

If your child has health related issues start keeping a calendar of dates missed and copies of notes sent. Do the same for any other attendance related issues. There are many computer calendars you can download and print to help keep track of the dates. Schools are not prepared for organized parents and documentation can be the difference between winning and losing one of these battles.

My advice to parents is to start a conversation with the expectation that a mistake has been made. There is nothing to be gained by starting a war. However, be educated about your rights as a parent. If you are called about an attendance issue, have the documentation ready and know the school policies.

Know the chain of command at your school. It varies from district to district and state to state. Here I always suggest you start by talking with the child's teacher. However, in matters of attendance, they are not always the record keepers that matter. If a mistake has occurred, it may be at the administrative level. Keep that in mind when talking with the teacher and find out what the school thinks is wrong. The next level up here is the principal. From a parent would request a meeting with the superintendent, and then appeal to the school board.

As parents, realize that attendance systems have changed. While many of us hail technology as a great time saver, it is only as accurate as the people entering the information. While great time and care used to be taken doing attendance by hand and more respect given to a parent's word that a mistake had been made regarding attendance, parents are being asked to fight against the word of a computer. Our culture has become dependent on believing their infallibility. While we would have believed a busy secretary might have marked Mark Jones instead of Mary Jones absent, we find it incomprehensible that while doing data entry a teacher did not enter Mark Jones instead of Mary Jones absent. Somehow, if the computer states the record as accurate, we fail to acknowledge the human error is still possible.

This is why documentation is so important.

Another issue to consider however are laws that continue to be passed that punish the innocent in an effort to control fraud and force parents to address the issue of truancy. Do you support being punished for schools that are not accurately reporting attendance in order to get federal or state funding? Do you think that the federal government getting involved in truancy is the right approach? If not it is time to contact your local, state, and federal officials and tell them about your experiences. While local officials can handle this issue with more respect for parents, these laws are going to get more restrictive not less. With the calls for merit pay for teachers, expect teachers unions to demand more emphasis on attendance, too. Logic dictates that if your pay is based on children showing up at school, you are going to want some control over those children's attendance. This will get worse as we put more control over our children in the hands of the government.


  1. Bailey, I just wanted you to know that I don't have any kids at home, but I truly find your insight and advice on this blog inspiring. It gives me a way to keep up on the education arena that I may have otherwise forgotten about. Kudos to you!

  2. I really think the government needs to step away from my kids- personally, this is how I feel about it. I have never agreed with the mandatory attendance things, which, I suppose was a big part of my decision to home school.

  3. Thank you. While many people see the consequences of these laws, most do not understand how these situations evolved. Knowledge provides parents and those who do not have kids in the system to work for positive changes.

  4. That should read knowledge provides parents and those without children with the tools to work for positive change in the system.

  5. Tori, that continues to be one of the big motivations for homeschoolers. However, I still believe homeschooling parents and public school parents need to support each other on these issues of attendence. The laws that frustrate homeschoolers should bring public school parents out in support. The laws that are becoming more restrictive for public school parents should bring public, private, homeschooling, and those without kids together to discuss the role of government in raising children.

    There are some DSS issues that have to be addressed. However, there is no reason to punish and control all parents for the few that require intervention to protect children.

  6. One of the other parents at school and I were talking about this earlier today. It is crazy how they act when your kid misses school.

  7. It is up to the parents to change how they act. If you don't nobody will.