New attendance policy at WHS

Shaunessey Lambert, Staff Writer

Students at Westfield High School were welcomed back to school with a new attendance policy. The new attendance policy states that “unexcused absences from class in excess of 9 days in a 1 semester course will result in a grade reduction to a final average of 59. Unexcused absences from class in excess of 18 days in a full-year course will result in a grade reduction to a final average of a 59”. It has been said that the cause for the change was due to noncompliance with state regulations.

Although there are many interpretations of this attendance policy, the law is the bass line for any interpretation. The law itself is rather hard to find, but it is stated in Part 1, Title 12, Chapter 76, section 12B of the Massachusetts state Legislature. It says, roughly, that students must attend 90% of school days meaning 10% is left for absences. When calculated, 10% of 180 days of school is 18 absences per year.

The confusion arose when years ago the school committee decided to divide the absences into quarters and added 2 extra days to compensate for 18 not being divisible by four. Through the years many people misinterpreted “5 absences per quarter” as that the sixth absence would lead to failing the quarter with a maximum of 59%, but this is not the case.
WHS Assistant Principal, Daniel Paquette, was involved with the reinstatement of the state attendance law at WHS. When writing the guidelines for the student handbook, all WHS staff was invited to participate, and so they met, discussed their options and wrote the new guidelines.  Although he has not yet received any complaints from students, or parents/guardians, it is expected that some with arise later in the school year.

The WHS administrative staff held class-by-class assemblies explaining this new policy to the student body. Paquette also introduced the option of the restorative justice program where students may attend Saturday school to gain an excusal for an unexcused absence.

When asked if he thought the attendance policy is biased in the sense that some students may have more money for doctors notes, or better advocates for their success, Paquette explained that yes, advocates are a privilege but the school tries to be as consistent as possible and help any students who are struggling with an attendance deficit. But still, if you let it happen, it will happen.

Senior at WHS, Diana Stuzhuk, said that “[i]t means that if I get really sick or mentally ill without going to the doctors, I’m basically screwed.” And in most cases this would be true.

However, junior at WHS, Jeffrey Nolan, explained that if you can’t afford a trip to the doctors for an excusal note then there is an option to have your parents call into the doctor’s office and request a parent excusal note, overseen by the doctors. He doesn’t “skip class or school,” he’s “only out when [he’s] sick”

Emma Schoenfeld (senior), Stuzhuk, and Nolan agreed that they have not “exceeded 9 unexcused absences per semester in the past,”(Nolan). Stuzhuk even stated that she hasn’t missed any more than one or two days a year.

In general, they believed that it is a good change and that it will most likely help attendance issues, however, to some, failing a class doesn’t scare them. But to these students, the largest overall issue is that unexcused absences are not being taken care of by the office to be changed to excused. This could leave some students failing classes when they’ve taken every effort to fix it. In general “the office can’t get their act together,” (Nolan).

The director of Curriculum and Instruction, Susan Dargie, said that “Unexcused absences are definitely a big concern.” The school system aims for having students involved so that they are seen as a part of our community. The attendance issues start long before ninth grade, in late primary schooling. The students who are seen skipping school/class now, have been taught that it was ok because they were able to miss a day in elementary school with little repercussion, because illnesses are more common in younger children, so the doctors won’t see the child to receive a note. A parental note will excuse a child, but no matter how many absences they had, their grade stays the same. It changes slightly in early secondary schooling with a required doctor excusal note to excuse an absence. But once high school begins a doctor’s note is required.

However, she feels less connected to the result of failing a class due to absences because it doesn’t represent their true abilities and academic skill. She feels that even though a student may have exceeded the number of unexcused absences allowed, if they are able to retain the information taught, they shouldn’t have to fail the class that they have clearly mastered the abilities for.

In addition, she thinks this policy could have potential for more failures of classes, but she doesn’t think it will change some students attendance. The “consistent attendance violators” will stay the same, because the “root cause is where we need to make a change.”

She explained that when discussing the importance of enforcing the attendance policies with teachers in the school district, they found inconsistencies with the regional policy and ultimately the state law as well. The central office met with all of the districts Principals for secondary schooling which then they found the mistake which led to the change at WHS. She also included that “change doesn’t happen instantaneously” so this shift of policies may take a while to stick.

Overall, most responses seem fairly neutral about the topic. The common thread through all that were interviewed was the idea that more kids need to stay in school. Hopefully our new policy will help with keeping students in class, but regardless, the state regulations give us this law, so no one but them truly has a say in how this works, unless you feel compelled to change their minds.