State school board: Must we define chronic absenteeism?

Facing a July 1 deadline to create a statewide standard of when a student’s absences from school can be considered “excused,” and when districts will be required to step in and do something about habitual absenteeism, State Board of Education members are questioning why it’s necessary.

“I don’t like that… I don’t think that’s the solution,” said Patricia Luke, from East Hampton, saying she’s concerned such a definition will create punitive measures. “I don’t want to create another problem for kids.”

Other state board members also said it would be burdensome for districts to monitor how many unexcused absences students reach and make sure they get the appropriate interventions to get them to school.

“Can we just define [excused absences so] that local districts define it?” asked Joseph J. Vrabely Jr of Glastonbury.

Dozens of schools throughout the state have dismal attendance rates. Teachers at Bulkeley High School in Hartford can expect one of every four of their students to be absent every day.

State law requires that a list of interventions take place when a child has four unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a school year.

If students lack reliable transportation, the district must resolve the problem. If they aren’t showing up because they are being bullied or because of another personal issue, it is the district’s responsibility to address the issue. If the child is skipping and nothing else is working, then they can face discipline measures through the courts.

But there is a potential problem: These interventions are guaranteed and triggered only when students reach that threshold of unexcused absences.

State law requires that by July 1, the state board must define when it’s permissable for a child to miss school.

“You cannot educate an empty chair,” Charlene Russel-Tucker, the state department’s chief operating officer.

A survey conducted by the state department of 100 districts shows that pretty much every district considers illness, a death in the family and religious observations grounds for an excused absence. However, where districts differ is whether excused absences should include doctor appointments, court appearances, college visits and family illness.

While several state board members said they want to avoid being overprescriptive when setting a definition, a few members said they want to move forward with setting requirements for districts.

“I don’t think we should try to avoid that responsibility,” said Theresa Hopkins-Staten, the board’s vice chairwoman from West Hartford.

The panel will consider voting on definitions at its next meeting.


Source: Connecticut State Department of Education