Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Parent's Plea to MPS Board Members!

Autumn Cook a co-founder of the Nebraska Family Policy Forum who recently moved out of state but has remained involved in our efforts to amend Nebraska's School Attendance law. Her words were so powerful I had to post them here.


Some background:
Local School District Policies in the Omaha Learning Community:

School Districts in the Omaha Learning Community have revised their attendance policies to fall in line with the Superintendents plan which in most cases has made school district policy more strict then even the state statute requires. School boards have stricken language from their policies to seriously limit what was considered an excused absences. 

The law requires that school districts define "excessive absenteeism with these guidelines: "The number of absences in the policy shall not exceed five days per quarter or the hourly equivalent, and school districts may use excused and unexcused absences for purposes of the policy."

This gave districts leeway up to five unexcused absences per quarter as a definition for excessive, which most parents would agree is excessive. What has happened instead is that districts taking their ques from the Superintendents plan, have defined "excessive absenteeism" as being absent five days in one year! FIVE DAYS IN ONE YEAR REGARDLESS OF THE REASON!!! This is considered excessive!


Autumn Cook's Comments to Mike Kennedy, Millard School Board Member:

Mike, I have gained the distinct impression that there is a culture in public school administration in which School Board members have very little inflence in what actually happens in their schools, other than hiring a superintendent. It seems that once that superintendent is hired, the School Board just gets to rubber stamp whatever comes out of his adminstration, with only surface questions asked and no real opposition to any ideas whatsoever. If the staff says its good, it must be; they're the experts.

But we elect you guys to protect our interests! As we see them, not as a bureaucrat or trained expert sees them.

We spent a LOT of time talking to our representatives about this, Mike. We traveled to the Capitol in a snowstorm to express our concerns about the expansion of the law this year. We held sustained dialogue with our own senators about the issue. We brought our kids down to the Capitol to share stories of what the original law did, and spent the better part of an hour working out an arrangement with the sponsor of the bill that would protect us from outrageous invasion of our families. But that rested on one thing - you! You and the other elected members of the School Board! We can do all that work, but you know the reality is that my senator cares more about what you board members have to say than about what I have to say. You know that as long as you're rubber stamping their policies, they feel like they must be doing a fine job, because you represent me and the interests of the education system, in their worldview.

We counted on our local truancy policies being applied, not on having them wiped out and overhauled to put teeth into this threat. We counted on our school boards to have minds of their own, to be able to see the terrifying, unintended consequences of this monstrosity and say, "We'll trust the good parents who have raised the good students who have given us our distinguished reputation and leave our truancy policy as is, thank you very much!", not to listen to the experts tell them its better for everybody. We counted on some good old Nebraska common sense about what free countries ought to look like. Can you see George Washington fighting for this sort of sytem? Can you see Thomas Jefferson defending its intrusions? I can't. But I sure can see Nazi Germany pleased at the extent to which they've overridden the natural rights of parents, and created a greater obligation to the state - all for their own good!

Do the people supporting these changes really want a student to miss a chance to visit, say, the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, Washington D.C., or even an international destination? Every reasonable person knows that the actual experience of a place will teach far more than reading about it, and I would think that educators would be very happy when their students get to take advantage of these opportunities, especially when they also finish their homework before they even return to school.

But these policies will also sweep up the child who finds out a day in advance that she must attend her grandmother's funeral out of state, and prevent her from doing that work on the way out, rather than after the emotional event; the chronically ill student going in for surgery from doing the work while pre-op and recovering in the hospital; the student who's aunt is getting married in October at a destination location. What the heck?

The whole thing is extremely disturbing. We were told this new law was to prevent dropping out and deliquency. It does a little to prevent delinquency or dropping out, but it does far more to DIRECTLY target conscientous, responsible families who have no desire to get tangled up with the law. With the revision of the local truancy policies - the last piece in this horrible puzzle - it's obvious that its about everyone - straight A students, accomplished club athletes, musicians who train outside the school system, families who have the opportunity to travel a lot, families who get sick a lot - EVERYONE! And that leaves me convinced that its about money and control, and ultimately, NCLB. You can't make a fabulous district like Millard "better" unless you force the good people to be in their seats more often! To get those federal dollars, you have to improve your attendance rates every stinking year.

It's not right. And it won't stop until someone, somewhere, with a position of "influence" has the guts to stand up to the machine (can you hear me pleading here?) and say no. We've got a system that works, and it works well, and we won't jump through these hoops and into your chains to get that money you're dangling in front of us.

Autumn Cook
Formerly of Omaha, NE
Millard Public Schools


  1. Mike KennedySeptember 21, 2011

    For whatever the reason there are major misconceptions concerning the policy and its application. It is not 5 absences in a year, it is a quarter. I am going to suggest that your organization write 4 or 5 very concise questions you have about the policy and I will forward them on to Dr. Lutz and his staff to answer your questions. That way you can publish the responses so the whole group can benefit. I would also encourage you to call your State Senator on this matter as it was state law that created this issue.

  2. I think you should check the policy again. I have read it several time the past few days and highlighted the points that define excessive absences.

    At the end of our policy in black and white in the definitions section it states: C. "Excessive Absences" shall mean five (5) or more absences from school in one year or the hourly equivalent.

    Also in number 3. Excessive Absenteeism it states: "If a student has accumulated five (5) absences in a school year or the hourly equivalent, the district shall render all services in its power to compel..." This is straight from district policy given to me by two separate administrators within a week after the August 15th revisions.

  3. Additionally that law allowed student information to be shared with and interventions from state agencies via the GOALS team. According to the law, students are referred to the GOALS team when they "have been absent from school for more than five days per year or the hourly equivalent except when excused by school authorities."

    For this reason the kinds of absences school districts considered excused is very important, since the district policy is the only protection parents can expect under this new more aggressive law!

  4. I am not even sure why they are including the "or the hourly equivalent" stipulation, as they are actually counting ANY amount of time as a full day.

    I had to pick my son up 15 minutes before the end of the school day to have his wisdom teeth pulled, and it was counted it as a full day absence. They also count being one minute tardy as a full day. Granted, it IS the student and/or parent's fault if a student is tardy, but arriving one minute late should not be treated the same as simply blowing off an entire day of school.

  5. You are absolutely right, anonymous. You might as well take him out for the whole day and do something enriching outside of school the next time he needs minor surgery!

    Here's the problem with the state criminalizing behavior which does no material harm to anyone: whoever is in power gets to decide which behaviors are important enough to criminalize.

    For example, timeliness has always been one of my personal weaknesses, so my kids tend to have more tardies than I'd like to admit. But here's the thing - I'm really good at other things, like feeding my kids a great breakfast. They may be 2 minutes past the bell several times a year, but they've got pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit and milk in their stomachs, and they don't get sick often because I'm serious about their nutrition. Which is better parenting? A poptart and 10 minutes early, or an omelette with fresh fruit and 2 minutes late? The nutty "tardy=absence" business penalizes one particular weakness and makes it so that great parents could get hauled into court with their great kids because the state has decided to crack down on that particular failing. It's twisted!

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