Fairfax Schools Expel Policy That Failed Students for 3 Skips

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

For years Fairfax County public schools have had one of the strictest attendance policies in the region: Miss three classes in a quarter without a legitimate excuse, get an automatic F.

But the three-strikes policy made it nearly impossible for students who skipped class a few times to change their ways; they had little motivation to show up for class because they had already failed.

"There's no hope for that grade at that point," said Teresa Zutter, director of intervention and prevention services. "The student says: 'Why should I try? I can't undo this mistake.' "

So schools officials decided to get rid of the policy starting this fall.

But Ferris Bueller wannabes shouldn't get too excited; the change doesn't let them off the hook. Fairfax County principals have a list of ways teachers can punish students who skip and reward those who show up, such as giving points for class participation and credit for turning in homework or pop quizzes. Plus, there are disciplinary options such as detention, taking away parking or extracurricular privileges, and meetings with parents. Teachers can get even more ideas from a new Web site the school system launched on the topic.

"Some people worried this would give kids a free card to skip whenever they want. That's a myth," Zutter said. "We're not trying to remove accountability from students. We expect them to be at school every day, all the time, for the whole day."

The majority of students who regularly show up for class on time -- or only occasionally skip -- shouldn't see much change, she said.

Each Washington area school system has its own definition of what constitutes an unexcused absence and how students can be reprimanded for racking up too many.

In Montgomery County, high school students who accumulate five unexcused ("unlawful") absences in a semester generally receive a failing grade and lose course credit. But Betsy Brown, the school system's director of curriculum and instruction, said that the regulation is under review.

Stafford County does not have any punitive actions tied to student attendance, although a committee was just formed to review the policy, said spokeswoman Valerie S. Cottongim. High school students who have not missed more than two days of school and have at least a C+ average in a class do not have to take the spring final.

The few schools that still link attendance to grades vary widely in how they do so: In Falls Church, high school students who miss class 12 times in a quarter automatically fail, while high-schoolers in Charles County need only two "unlawful absences" in a quarter to fail.

The new Fairfax policy gives teachers more freedom to use their judgment in assigning grades and help students get back on track, Zutter said. About two years ago, the school system organized a team of teachers and school officials to examine the county's attendance practices. That committee found that different teachers, schools and administrators had different ways of handling attendance issues, but nearly all felt they were being limited by the three-strikes rule, Zutter said.

Parents have complained about the policy for years, which can occasionally cause trouble for seniors who are trying to graduate, said Michele Menapace, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. Menapace said she has never understood why school systems would link attendance to grades.

"I can't recall anyone talking to me who said it was a good policy, one that they should keep," Menapace said. "You can punish a child. You can discipline a child. You don't fail a child. How is that going to help them?"

Staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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