HHS attendance incentive questioned

By Dennis Minich

The Harrisonville R-9 School Board last week heard complaints from several district patrons about a policy designed to improve attendance at the high school. Meeting on Jan. 12, the board heard from four parents and one student about a policy which allows students with perfect attendance marks to opt out of final exams.

The policy was established by HHS Principal Mark Weigers for this school year. Under the “Positive Discipline/Privilege System”, any student with a perfect attendance record during the school year can opt out of any three final exams. A student with 97.5 percent attendance (two absences) can opt out of two exams and a student with 95 percent attendance (four absences) can opt out of one final exam. As the policy was originally written, the only absences which would not count against a student were for field trips or college visits. The policy was put in place because state funding for schools is based on attendance and the Harrisonville schools are falling short on required numbers.

The policy was instituted at the school level and, while some parents had been in communication with Weigers and Superintendent Paul Mensching, they said they didn’t feel their concerns had been properly addressed, so they asked to speak to the board.

Michelle Wilson was the parent who had sent a letter requesting the opportunity to speak and was first, saying the policy is not flexible to meet special circumstances.

“There’s no exception for illness or injuries or family emergencies. Health should be a higher standard than attendance. We have spoken with several educators who agree this policy is wrong, but they don’t want to speak in opposition to their employers,” she said.

Her daughter, Madelyn, a freshman at HHS, was next.

“I am not a lazy student. I have an auto-immune disease which created blindness. The policy shows attendance is the most important thing and doesn’t take into account genetic differences,” she said.

Erin Cooper recited the district’s mission statement, which is read at the opening of every meeting.

“The mission of Harrisonville Schools is to achieve excellence in education,” she said. “I don’t believe this policy achieves that. This is so we can get accreditation and funding back. Some of us are seeing our kids do everything they need to do. When our kids are sick or injured, we think it’s unfair. These are good kids with good grades and we want an even chance,” Cooper said.

Callie Justice spoke about her daughter, Nonnie, who travels during the year to national wrestling tournaments.

“She missed 40 days because of wrestling, but she’s not allowed to opt out of anything. She had a 3.8 GPA last year and is at 3.6 this year. Because of wrestling, she has a chance for a scholarship and to travel. But she gets no bonus just for showing up. This policy is a bonus simply for attendance,” she said.

Jerian Cesnonis said the parents had been in contact with both a national disabled rights group and the ACLU about the policy. Her comments echoed comments made by Michelle Wilson to Mensching.

In the letter, she wrote, “We do not agree with parents allowing their children to miss school unless it is for medical reasons or other extreme situations.  We want to see appropriate standards expected and worked to achieve in the district. What we disagree on is that the current policy is creating the situation of students attending school while sick – spreading illnesses to other students and staff, as well as attending when they are injured and should be recovering per doctor’s orders.

“From our understanding, that is not within the scope of Title II of the ADA because it is not equal. According to Title II of the ADA (covering public schools), it states that: “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.”

“In my experience as an upper-level manager, employers are not looking for a person who simply shows up and does nothing. I don’t want to raise my kids to just show up,” she said.

The board made no comments following the remarks, however Mensching, in a letter to Michelle Wilson, noted the policy had been modified to allow students with known disabilities to not be penalized if their absences were related to their disability.

In unrelated action, Weigers gave his report to the board on the attendance figures for the first semester. He noted the state department of education sets a 90-percent attendance standard. Last year only 77 percent of the students finished with at least 90 percent. Right now, the school’s mark is 85 percent. He noted that under the attendance policy, 138 students have perfect attendance and at this point 581 students would be able to opt out of at least one final. He said these were positive numbers, noting, “We know there is a correlation between academics and attendance.”

During the business session, the board approved a new computer science curriculum which was discussed at the December meeting. The new curriculum will expand computer science classes from grade seven through the Cass Career Center.

The board also adopted a policy concerning recognition of deceased students at graduation ceremonies. The policy states, “Graduation protocol for students who have passed away while in high school, but prior to graduation will be as follows if requested by the student’s parent or guardian: 1) HHS will have a Memorial Chair for the student during graduation ceremonies. 2) The student’s name will be printed in a dedicated memorial section of the graduation program. 3) HHS will provide the family with an “Honorary HHS Diploma,” diploma cover and graduation tassel. 4) Only students who have fulfilled HHS graduation requirements will have their names read aloud during the graduation ceremony.

The board also approved a contract with Benefits Direct to handle some of the district’s supplemental benefits programs.

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