ROCK SPRINGS — In an effort to address declining attendance and graduation rates in Sweetwater School District #1, the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to approve changes to the district attendance policy for the upcoming school year.
According to data presented by Rock Springs High School Principal Annie Fletcher and District Human Resources Director Nicole Bolton, the high school alone recorded 192,290 total absences in the past school year. While the district attendance numbers are not the worst in Wyoming, they rank near the top.
Of those total absences, Fletcher said that 57,244 were unverified.
“Those are the number of times when there was no communication about the student’s absence at all,” Fletcher said. “There is no substitute for being there in that educational setting. For being part of those discussions. For being part of those instructions.”
While the numbers were presented only for the high school, Bolton said the problem has spread district-wide.
“The amount of time our principals are already spending in attendance meetings trying to tackle it is astronomical,” she said. “Because they are trying to get down to the personal issues so that we can try to intervene and be proactive rather than punitive.”
Fletcher and her team took those alarming numbers and presented them to the district’s Policy Committee, which came up with a number of suggestions to improve the situation.
Fewer Excused Absences
When the policy changes, students will now have five excused absences per semester rather than 10 allowed under the old policy. Students and parents will not have to explain why they were absent, but any absences beyond five will be subject to intervention.
Some of those interventions include Saturday school, after-school programs, peer tutors and counseling support. If the problem persists, the district can recommend to the board that the county attorney get involved with the parents or student.
The section of the policy that reads “a zero grade will be recorded for each class or activity missed as the result of an unexcused absence or truancy… makeup work will be provided, but no credit will be awarded” has been removed.
Students with five or more unexcused absences will be referred to the board as a habitual truant. And students who participate in non-sanctioned activities like hockey, dance studio recitals, or softball will not be punished for absences as long as they satisfy the same eligibility criteria as students participating in sanctioned activities.
An entire overview of Fletcher and Bolton’s presentation can be viewed here.
The district will also consider offering a “reduced diploma” to students who struggle with learning and attendance. This would require a student to earn only 18 credits to graduate rather than the mandatory 24.
But Bolton said this is “not a route we’re going to promote” because it limits a student’s ability to earn scholarships or advance to college.
While most of the attendees at the board meeting spoke in favor of the policy changes, one parent felt that the community was not involved enough in the discussion.
“Parental input is being sabotaged when it comes to important issues,” said Connie Johnson. She said that she is so upset by the district’s actions that she is offering home-schooling flyers and information to parents who want to pull their kids out of school.
After the meeting, Bolton expressed her appreciation to the board for allowing her and Fletcher to deliver the presentation and get to the heart of the problem. A letter was sent out across the district earlier this month to tell parents about the proposed changes.
“We know we’re going to have some bumps. But we’re not out to hurt people as a ‘gotcha,'” Bolton said. “We really do want to be preventative and supportive because the kids need to be in school to learn.”
She said the first steps will be to educate parents and students on the policy changes and developing a partnership with them to make the policy effective.
“We’ve been meeting with our community partners such as the SRO, DFS, and Juvenile Probation to be preventative and provide resources before it winds up in a court situation,” Bolton said. “Because we don’t want people to get in trouble. But the transition isn’t going to be seamless. Our biggest hurdle is making sure people know about it, and that parents and students are educated.”
Trustee Matt Jackman suggested that the board review attendance numbers in January to see if the new policy is being effective.
Following its regular order of business, the board convened to executive session to discuss legal and personnel matters.