Classrooms at Arlington's Wakefield High School had a few more empty seats than usual this week -- not because of the nasty chest cold going around or a sudden rise in delinquency, but because at least 22 students have left the country for vacations that will last significantly longer than the school's 10-day winter break.
School officials expect that number to rise at Wakefield and other Washington area schools, as large numbers of students from immigrant families return to their native countries at the holidays. The trend has caused something of a conundrum for teachers trying to keep students on schedule, as well as for students concerned about their performance.
Monica Day, left, with mother Socorro Rojas, will miss a week of classes because of a family trip.
(Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
Parents say the trips are an important way for children to reconnect with their roots and are only worth the considerable cost, sometimes thousands of dollars, if they last several weeks. But educators warn that even if students are able to make up the missed work, a vacation that lasts too long can endanger their enrollment status.
Arlington school officials sent letters this year to parents, pleading with them not to pull students from class before Dec. 23, when vacation begins, or keep them out beyond Jan. 3, when school reopens. Wakefield Assistant Principal Cecelia Michelotti said students returning later may not have much time to prepare for exams.
"The end of January is the end of the semester," she said. "We can't adjust that."
In Montgomery County, travel-related absences are generally excused for younger children, but not for high school students, and under Maryland law, more than five unexcused absences can result in lost class credit.
School officials there have met with parents who have recently moved here to stress the importance of keeping trips within the system's Dec. 24-31 break and letting them know what the students will miss if they don't. Elsa von Boecklin, parent coordinator for Montgomery schools' English for Speakers of Other Languages bilingual program, said falling behind can be particularly treacherous for newer immigrants, who "need every minute of instruction."
According to Virginia law, a student who is absent more than 15 consecutive class days, unless it is because of a documented illness, is considered withdrawn from school and must re-enroll. Parents then have to go to the school to fill out new enrollment forms.
The absentees head for destinations around the world. One fifth-grader at Arlington Science Focus left in early December to spend three months in Pakistan with his family as they prepare for a wedding. But most of those who leave are bound for Latin America, where Christmastime involves big family celebrations.
In the Southern Hemisphere, December and January also mean summer fun. "For some of the South American families, this is their country's school holiday," said Lolli Haws, principal of Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, where eight families have left early. "We had a couple that left at Thanksgiving and are coming back in January, [and] we have some that left in early December and are coming back in mid-January."
Michelotti said Wakefield has been more flexible this year about excusing the extended vacations. Previously, such absences were usually marked as unexcused and teachers were not obliged to let students make up the work. "We don't want the kids to leave," she said, "but sometimes they come to us and say, 'My family is going away, and I don't have anyone to stay with.' "
Such absences can be considered emergencies, she said, and now tend to be excused if parents give notice. Students must make up missed work, and teachers must give them a chance to do so. But if students are not in good academic standing, she said, the school might not excuse the absence.
Some families reconsider in the face of the possible consequences. "I've had families change their plans because of this," said John Porter, principal of Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School, which also has a high number of immigrants, some of whom have returned this year to Honduras, El Salvador and Ethiopia. "They say, 'Well, then, maybe we'll go for a shorter period of time, or maybe we won't go.' "
The choice can be hard. "Sometimes it is a situation like this may be the last time he'll see his grandfather," Porter said.
Emma Violand-Sanchez, director of ESOL-HILT (High Intensity Language Training) for Arlington public schools, sees both perspectives. She and her grown children left last week to visit her home country of Bolivia.
"It's the first time in 10 years that I'm taking my kids there," she said. "We're going to the wedding of a nephew. We're going to see my elderly aunt, who is dying." The flights cost her $3,000, and after spending that kind of money, she said, "I'm not going to stay for five days."
Such trips "didn't happen with immigrants when they came by boat and they couldn't go back to Italy for Christmas," Violand-Sanchez added. But today, she said, some are required to go back home in order to apply for U.S. residency, and many go at this time of year not only because of Christmas, but also because it is the only time they can take time off work. For those in construction, for example, winter is when the work ebbs.
"People say, 'How about going when the kids are off for summer?' " Violand-Sanchez said. "But many of our parents don't work in the type of job where they can choose their vacation."
Still, she said, she understands why schools don't like it. "It penalizes kids. I will never forget when my son was in first grade and I took him to Bolivia and kept him out for one extra week. When we came back, they put him in a lower reading level. Throughout his school career, he always reminded me if I hadn't gone back, he would have been in a higher reading group."
The holiday problem also applies to Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens with additional holiday traditions. In Puerto Rico, Christmas celebrations culminate Jan. 6 with Los Tres Reyes Magos, or the Epiphany.
Monica Day, a 15-year-old sophomore at Washington-Lee High School, is traveling to Puerto Rico with her family to celebrate Epiphany and will miss the first week of classes after the break. She is anxious about her application to the school's prestigious International Baccalaureate program, which is due the day she returns, and she frets about missing so many classes.
"I'm worried that I'm going to get really behind in algebra, which is my weakest subject," she said, adding that she hopes to communicate with her teachers by e-mail. Her mother has e-mailed all of Monica's teachers about the trip, and her algebra teacher "wasn't too happy," Monica said.
Still, Monica chatted excitedly about her first Christmas in Puerto Rico in three years, and the tradition in which children strew grass on their bedroom floor the night before the Epiphany.
"Like the cookies with Santa," Monica said. "The camels come, they follow the trail of grass to your bed," and in the morning there are presents.
Monica's mother, Socorro Rojas, who teaches first grade in Key Elementary School's Spanish immersion program in Arlington, said she has seen children leave for extended periods and fall behind.
"But [Monica] has good grades right now, and she's very responsible," she said. "I don't know how it's going to affect her. We'll see."
Families sometimes decide to leave older children here alone, which schools frown upon. Violand-Sanchez said schools with lots of immigrants might consider switching to a modified academic calendar that includes longer mid-year breaks and shorter summer breaks.
Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington and Samuel Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria have such a calendar -- although even at Barcroft, some families leave early -- and other schools are considering it. Montgomery does not have modified calendars.
Violand-Sanchez also suggested that schools look at the extended trip as a learning experience.
"Instead of something where a kid has done something bad," she said, "let them make up the days . . . and then do a report on what they learned."