NORTH FULTON, Ga. – Proposed changes to the attendance policy that clamps down on students missing a class here and there went over like a lead balloon at a recent work session of the Fulton County Board of Education.
“Seriously? Do not draw a line in the sand and tell me [as a parent] when I can and cannot take my child to the doctor,” said an incredulous Katie Reeves following the Sept. 19 overview of the proposed changes.
The Alpharetta board member challenged staff revisions to the policy that could result in a trip to the principal’s office after more than six unexcused absences. While the number of absences is unchanged from present policy, the interpretation of what is an “excused absence” may be.
Under the proposed policy, an absence can be any part of the day – even 15 minutes of a class – up to the entire day. Additionally, a doctor’s visit will no longer be considered an excused absence, however it was unclear if the policy allows principals discretion to rule otherwise.
Fulton officials said policy changes were needed to help schools deal with chronic absences and to better comply with state law on truancy. In Georgia, students with five or more unexcused absences are considered truant under a rarely enforced law.
“We realize we are making significant revisions to our policy, which has not had major changes in many years. We do plan to work with principals after a few months of implementation to understand where the policy is working and where we need to make further revisions,” explained Patty Foglesong, who works in innovation and strategy for Fulton Schools.
But school board members said the policy is overly restrictive at a time when the system is trying to allow schools more flexibility under the charter system.
“I’m thinking this policy would be in place for a week before a student hits the seventh day [because of] allergy shots,” said Board President Linda Schultz. “I agree we have to solve [the attendance] issue, but this is not the way to do it.”
Board member Julia Bernath said even orthodontics require a monthly check-up, putting kids out of compliance before the school year is over.
“How much leeway does a principal have?” she asked. “The way this is written, kids are going to be slapped with unexcused absences and that is going to impact their grades and other things.”
Foglesong said state law determines attendance mandates, but was unsure if the rules on attendance were enacted by the state legislature under Title 20 (the laws that govern public schools in Georgia) or the State Board of Education. This is crucial since Fulton’s charter agreement with the state provides a blanket waiver from many Title 20 provisions.
Foglesong said the revisions were developed over several months of information gathering from a policy committee, principals, central office staff and attorneys. Parents were not cited as one of the groups asked to provide input.
While recognizing there are some abuses of the attendance policies, Reeves said it was ridiculous to put in place such a restrictive policy.
“We all got completely annoyed with the legislature coming in and telling us what we can and cannot do … [and] this is doing exactly [that],” said Reeves. “I’m really sorry there is the occasional child that misses too much, [but] that would call for our educators to obviously reach out and ask, ‘what can we do to help?’”
Some board members suggested parents stagger the times of appointments so that a certain period is not continually missed, while other board members said working parents may not have that flexibility.
School staff recommended approval of the policy changes at the Sept. 19 board meeting, however the issue will spend the next 30 days in review before coming back for a potential vote at the October meeting.