Aiming at Attendance 

Local teacher tries to stem the tide of student skipping.

Local Republican Party member and high school teacher Jim Coley said that sometimes class-attendance bubble sheets look like they've been used in target practice.

"Students might miss 13 days out of a six-week period," he said. "It's not the norm, but it's not uncommon."

Last week the Shelby County Republican Party passed a resolution asking the Tennessee General Assembly to enact a mandatory-attendance law. Under the resolution, students would automatically fail if they had 15 or more unexcused absences during the year.

Coley wrote and introduced the resolution after he learned that the Metro Nashville Public Schools were relaxing their rigid attendance rules and that some of the teachers were upset. An economics and government teacher at Bolton High School, Coley said that in his 12 years of teaching he's had classes where he may have 32 kids on the roll, but only 21 will show up. Or, he's had students who weren't enrolled in his class sit in so they could hang out with their friends.

"It's a very frustrating experience for a teacher. We want students to pass," he said. "There may be somebody with an attendance problem, and if they want to make up the work, you want them to be able to. When you have 20 or 30 kids who do this, you're constantly updating your files."

Local school systems do not have mandatory attendance policies. Any student older than 17 in the Shelby County school system may be dropped from the rolls after three consecutive or five total unexcused absences. The names of other students with five unexcused absences are forwarded to the attorney general's office. Then they are considered truants.

In the city school system, any student with five unexcused absences receives a home suspension. However, the city schools policy allows at-risk pupils to make up work during unexcused absences to provide an additional incentive not to drop out.

Coley realizes a mandatory-attendance policy could mean more drop-outs -- one standard of judging schools -- but said he doesn't mean for it to be punitive. He sees it as encouragement for every child to go to class.

"If [skipping school] becomes part of the school's culture and the children know they can get away with it, it brings everybody down," said Coley. "That bothers me."

And with No Child Left Behind, the implications may be even more serious. Schools are expected to have a 93 percent overall attendance rate under the federal guidelines. Last December, research into 22 city schools on corrective action showed that -- just using this year's attendance data -- eight of them will automatically move on to alternate governance, the next lower level in the state sanctioning mechanism.

Coley said students sometimes sneak into other lunch periods or find some place in the school to hide and hang out instead of going to class. He's even seen students -- ones who were supposed to be in his class -- in the hall, and they'll put a book over their face to keep from being recognized.

"Sometimes I would go to the lunch room and get them if I knew where they were," said Coley. "There's only so much you can do."

E-mail: cashiola@memphisflyer.com

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